NASCAR got its wish Saturday night in the closing laps of the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway. The governing body announced only a few weeks ago it was going to let up on the tight leash that it had on the drivers in years past and let the boys “have at it”.
Jeff Gordon took NASCAR at its word and put his bumper to the rear end of Greg Biffle’s Ford during a late dash to the checkered flag, resulting in a multi-car crash. It was bump drafting at its best — or some might say at its worst — but like it or not, it will always be a part of racing on the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega.
When Gordon got on Biffle’s bumper, the two became a runaway freight train that quickly made its way through the field, but the added speed does come at a price and the car in front can become very difficult to handle. Biffle lost the handling on his Ford and in the process collected a total of five cars, two of them being Roush-Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.
Winning the 500 does not guarantee a series championship as winning both has only been accomplished eight times by five drivers (Richard Petty did it four times).
The unrestricted use of bump drafting will only be one part of the equation that a driver will have to figure out this Sunday in the Daytona 500. The larger restrictor plate that is being used this season will also play into it as it has made it very difficult for a group of cars to break away from the pack. Several times during the Shootout a group would try to make a break only to be quickly reeled in by the rest of the field.
Before a driver can entertain any thoughts of riding these changes to victory lane he must first make it into the show on Sunday and, with Daytona’s unique qualifying system, we will not know who made the field and where they will be starting until after the running of the Gatorade Duel 150 races.
Every car that finished in the top-35 in owner’s points last season is guaranteed a spot in the field for the 500, but after qualifying on Saturday only two starting spots were actually locked in. Mark Martin took the pole with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in second, which guarantees those two drivers the same position when the green flag waves on Sunday.
Positions 3 thru 39 go to the top 35 in last season’s owner’s points and the two highest-finishing teams in each Gatorade Duel race not in the top 35. That only leaves four spots with the next three spots going to the three fastest qualifiers that did not race their way into the starting field.
Bill Elliott, Scott Speed and Joe Nemechek are not driving cars that finished in the top 35, but they are locked into the 500 by posting the three fastest speeds of any team that was not locked into the field. If any of these three drivers do make it into the field by being one of the two cars that races its way into the field, that would lock Michael Waltrip into the starting field even though he was the fifth fastest driver of the drivers outside of the top 35. Bobby Labonte was actually the fourth fastest driver but he was already guaranteed a spot by being a past series champion. The 43rd spot is reserved for a past champion and since former champion Bill Elliott had already locked himself into the field with his qualifying effort, the champion’s spot went to Labonte.
PIT NOTES: Mark Martin became the oldest driver to ever sit on the pole for the Daytona 500 at 51 years, 27 days. Nine pole winners have gone on to win the 500 with the last being Dale Jarrett in 2000. If Martin makes it number 10 he would also go into the record books as the oldest driver to ever win the Daytona 500. He would replace Bobby Allison, who at 50 years, 2 months and 11 days, set the mark on Valentine’s Day in 1988.
Race Preview — Event: Daytona 500. Track: Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile tri-oval, 31 degrees of banking). Date: Feb. 14, 1 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Matt Kenseth.