The Grand Marshall for last night’s Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, actress Amber Heard, could have dispensed with the usual “Genlemen, start your engines” command and instead ordered, “Gentlemen, pick your partners!” As had been predicted, with the new smooth track surface the race very quickly settled in to drivers pairing up and running two cars nose to tail for a twenty miles per hour speed gain.

From the very first laps, whilst the majority of the field was still in a tight pack, Clint Bowyer and pole sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. were running together competing with the pairings of Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards plus Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin. As the race progressed so the pairings off spread until the latter half of the race saw virtually the whole field in two-car combos.

The drivers soon discovered that three and four car trains, whilst fast were still a bit slower than the classic two-car bump drafts. The drivers are still learning how to use these skills to best adavantage to the extent that four time champion Jeff Gordon‘s spotter felt the need to advise his man to rub the brakes more when he was the front car of the pair to keep them together.

The four drivers from Richard Childress Racing seemed to focus on working with each other but mostly the pairings were completely random creating moments when, for instance, a Ford would be pushing a Chevrolet to the front.

With almost unanimous agreement the drivers enjoyed the racing enormously and hoped it was as exciting to watch as it was to drive. Exciting it most certainly was and the prospect of the Daytona 500 being bump-draft racing for 500 miles instead of the almost 190 miles of last night plus with a field of 43 cars rather than just the 24 who started the Shootout is a tantalising prospect.

NASCAR had insisted before the race that the brake cooling ducts fitted to the cars for short track racing and which the teams had diverted to water and oil radiators to help cooling in the drafts would have to be blanked off for the Shootout in what turned out to be a vain hope of curbing the cars bump-drafting for too long. That their ruling failed was evidenced by Kevin Harvick spending the majority of the race pushing one of his teammates forward. It is to be hoped that NASCAR don’t try to create any further artificial means of preventing the draft and possibly ruining the show.

The race was run in two segments, the first lasting twenty-five laps with a compulsory ten minute pit stop when refuelling and tyre changing plus suspension adjustments were permitted. This would be the teams’ first chance to perform pitlane duties with the pit crew reduced from seven to six men. At the end of the twenty-five laps, which had been devoid of any incidents, the caution was thrown and leader Jeff Burton led the field into pitlane.

The trouble free running lasted all of three laps after the restart as six cars tangled on the back stretch. Video replays showed that it was simply a case of three or four cars all heading for the same piece of tarmac as Regan Smith tagged Carl Edwards who in turn got into Dale Earnhardt Jr. The ensuing melée then took out Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano and Kevin Conway. All six drivers showed remarkable understanding that it was just a racing accident with no fingers being pointed in blame.

The first 'real' caution - Edwards slides through the grass, Logano (20), Conway (97) and Montoya (42) also ending the race early

There were just two more cautions for crashes during the remainder of the race which were spookily similar. On lap 37 Mark Martin was pushing Kyle Busch in the now ubiquitous bump-draft and as they headed into turn one the latter suddenly slewed sideways just enough to cause the two cars to tangle and take each other out. Martin was quick to say on his return to pitlane that he genuinely had no idea why the crash had happened, he had done everything the same as they had on previous laps and yet this time it had created a wreck. He was content to acknowledge it could have been him rather than Busch who had caused it but genuinely had no idea why.

Busch’s car appeared to be alright to continue and at the restart he pulled off one of the most spectacular moves ever seen in NASCAR racing. As the field headed towards the green flag he had dropped right back off the tail of the field and started to accelerate hard long before any cars were anywhere near the startline. As the cars crossed the line Busch was up on the high side travelling at a ridiculously higher speed than the bunch and catching them all rapidly. By fate or good fortune the top line stayed clear as the #18 M&M’s car raced around the otuside of them all to take the lead. Unfortunately for Busch as soon as the pack had reached racing speed and paired into their bump-draft duos he, running alone, was immediately swamped and went straight to the back of the field again. He only lasted another couple of laps before retiring the damaged car.

The next crash was a repeat of the Martin/Busch incident, the leading car in the bump-draft, Michael Waltrip‘s #15 NAPA Toyota slewing around into the path of the pushing Chevrolet of Tony Stewart. Again, neither driver understood what had triggered the accident – there is something about bump-drafting high on the track that drivers haven’t quite gotten a handle on.

The remainder of the race saw pairs of cars passing their way to the front only to start dropping back again as they split apart to cool their engines. In the final seven or eight laps two pairs pulled away from the field, Ryan Newman with Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch being pushed by Jamie McMurray.

The two car bump drafting dominated till the end prompting a new style of racing at Daytona

As they raced towards the line McMurray stayed behind Busch and pushed for all he was worth whilst Hamlin dropped down to try to get a slingshot on Newman. As the latter pair raced side-by-side towards the line Newman held the lower line forcing Hamlin to make a decision. Either hit Newman out of the way or drop below the yellow line marking the inner edge of the track. 

“That yellow line is there to protect us and the fans in the stands, and I just chose to take the safer route,” Hamlin said. “A win in the Shootout is not worth sending the 39 [Newman] through the grandstands. For me, as fast as we’re running, if I got into his left rear, that car will go airborne.”

His run meant that Hamlin crossed the line in the lead but NASCAR lost no time in rightly black-flagging him for going below the yellow line and relegating him to last man on the lead lap and thus twelfth place.

So second across the line, Kurt Busch, was declared the winner and took the $203,000 prize money. Second place went to his pusher, McMurray, and third to Ryan Newman. Some way back was fourth placed man Jimmie Johnson followed by Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon.

“What an unbelievable experience, this two-car draft,” Busch said. “I had no idea what to expect going in. I was just going to take it one lap at a time and see how it played out. I wanted to learn as the race went on how this Shell/Pennzoil Dodge raced. [McMurray] was the man. He stayed with us. He stayed true. I can’t thank him enough for doing that. I hope it was the show the fans wanted to see.”

The result is Busch’s first ever win at Daytona and also his first ever in a restrictor plate race. It was the third consecutive win for car sponsor Shell/Pennzoil, the previous two being with Kevin Harvick.

For his part McMurray said, “It’s completely different plate racing than we’ve ever had, I hope it was exciting for the fans to watch. But from the driver’s seat, it was actually really exciting to push two-by-two and do the side draft. It is awesome the runs you were able to get, so I hope the fans enjoyed it.”