DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Busch twice appeared destined to destroy his race car, and twice used breathtaking saves to keep running around Daytona International Speedway.
He probably shouldn’t have been in position to race with the leaders. Yet there he was, bearing down on the finish line with a shot at winning Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout, and with a slingshot pass on the outside of defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, Busch pulled off a miraculous win in the first event of 2012.
Not too shabby of a start to the season.
NASCAR has every right to be giddy about Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, a pivotal race in sparking interest at the start of a very long season. A rain-shortened event in 2009 set the tone for a rocky year, and two lengthy delays to fix a pesky pothole in the track surface impacted the 2010 season.
Then came Trevor Bayne’s upset victory last year, and NASCAR never looked back.
The 2011 season ranked among the best in years, ending with a phenomenal race between Stewart and Carl Edwards for the Sprint Cup championship. The two ended the season tied in the standings, with the title going to Stewart on a tiebreaker.
All that momentum meant NASCAR could tweak very little during the off-season. Why mess with a good thing, right?
Well, not everything was sunshine and roses.
NASCAR OFFICIALS said earlier this month that more than 80 percent of fans polled “hated” the two-car tandem style of racing that had taken over at Daytona and Talladega.
That forced NASCAR to spend a significant chunk of the off-season tinkering with rules in an effort to re-create pack racing before the Feb. 26 opener.
The Shootout proved NASCAR made the right moves, and the drivers seemed overwhelmingly in favor of the racing.
“It’s pretty wild and crazy, but, I mean, I like this better than what we had last year, definitely,” said four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who rolled his car several times and wound up on his roof for what he said was the first time in his NASCAR career.
Gordon’s night ended seconds after he nudged Busch, triggering a chain-reaction crash that also led to Busch’s second save of the race.
It was one of three multicar crashes – the wrecks collected 23 total cars, set up a green-white-checkered finish and resulted in the closest finish in race history. Busch’s margin of victory was a mere 0.013 seconds, and his driving awed his competitors.
“I was right behind him … and he had to catch it three times before he saved it,” Stewart said. “When you get 3,400 pounds moving like that, to catch it one
time was pretty big. To get away from him and catch it a second time was big. The third time was big. That’s three big moments in one corner. He just never quit driving it.
“There’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t have caught that. I’m sitting there and the green is still out. I’m going, ‘Man, that’s the coolest save I’ve seen in a long time.’”
THERE ARE OTHER feel-good stories heading into NASCAR’s biggest race of the year.
• Danica Patrick will make her Daytona 500 debut, and the series is thrilled she’s made the full-time move to NASCAR.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, had his best season in five years in 2011 and is excited about his chances in the Daytona 500.
“I like this kind of racing better. At least I know what to expect,” he said.
• Edwards bounced
back from his loss to Stewart in the title race by winning the pole for the Daytona 500.
• There’s already some controversy, as the car for five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson failed inspection before it ever got on the track.
It’s all setting the stage for Sunday. The race probably won’t be 500 miles of three-wide racing, but if it’s anything close to the Shootout, it’s bound to be entertaining.