What used to be an all-star race among pole winners from the previous season now is a battle royal between all four manufacturers from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Each car company will send seven representatives into the 70-lap race at Daytona International Speedway, and the selection process proved to be just as puzzling.
The top six ranked teams in the car owner standings qualified from General Motors, Ford, Dodge and Toyota. So did a wild-card entry from all four -- either a former series champion or the seventh-ranked team.
With the myriad of changes brought on by the struggling economy, the lineup has been overhauled. Mergers, sales and closures have put rookie drivers Joey Logano and Scott Speed and in the race, while eliminating drivers like Clint Bowyer, who was in the Chase for the Championship last year, Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman and former Chase driver Martin Truex Jr.
"I don't like the new format," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "You had a race for guys who won poles; you had a race for guys who won races in the middle of the season, and now neither one of those are hardly recognizable.
"It's obviously better for the manufacturers with this new format for the shootout. But it's less about why the race was started in the first place."
The non-points race started 30 years ago when Budweiser became the sponsor of the pole qualifying award. Coors Light took over the pole award in 2008 and it didn't want to be associated with a race named after a competitor.
Once NASCAR cut off the entries on Wednesday, Speed moved into the main event in place of Triad Racing Technologies, which bought Bill Davis Racing during the off-season. If Triad had decided to race, it would have earned one of Toyota's slots.
"With the beer thing, I guess they had to change things," Matt Kenseth said. "We didn't win a pole last year so the new rules got us in. They did something for the manufacturers. They had to make it different, and they'll probably change it again next year."
Speed and Logano have combined to make eight career starts in the Sprint Cup Series.
Logano, who replaced Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing, said it will be a 199-mph classroom.
"I think it's a big learning experience for me," Logano said. "If nothing else, I should learn something there. All the top dogs around me, I should learn a whole bunch. I think it's going to help me through the whole race. It's going to be great for me to get some experience, get out there and gain some respect from those guys."
Logano and Speed both will represent Toyota. So will Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, David Reutimann, Michael Waltrip and Denny Hamlin.
Chevrolet will send Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt and Stewart, while Ford will be represented by Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, David Ragan, Bobby Labonte and Paul Menard.
Dodge's team will consist of Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson, Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon, Kasey Kahne and AJ Allmendinger and David Stremme.
Robby Gordon drove a Dodge last year but will switch to a Toyota for next week's Daytona 500. Dodge and NASCAR allowed him to drive a Dodge for tonight's race, then switch to a new manufacturer on Sunday.
That didn't set well with a lot of drivers, especially Sam Hornish, who would have qualified in Gordon's place.
"I don't know, things just sort of change," Earnhardt said. "Maybe there's nothing wrong with the format. Maybe I hate change. I don't like it. I like the old format."
The starting lineup was set with a blind draw. Menard will be on the pole, followed by Sadler in second and Sorenson in third.
Bowyer, who won a race and finished fifth in the Chase, will watch from the sidelines. When Richard Childress Racing expanded to four teams, he was the odd man out at Chevrolet.
The race will be staged in 20- and 50-lap segments. The leader of the final segment will earn at least $200,000.
On Sunday, every team returns for pole qualifying for the Daytona 500.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHEN: 8 tonight
WHERE: Daytona International Speedway
ON TELEVISION: Fox-Ch. 54