This weekend's Bud Shootout at the Daytona International Speedway is set to offer the best indication yet as to how the new restrictor plate regulations will affect the action in the Daytona 500.
Over the off-season, NASCAR implemented a range of new rules – most notably the reduction in size of the air-intake affecting a car's ability to push, and the banning of inter-car communications – to put an end to the two-car tandem drafts that emerged last year, and bring about a return of traditional pack racing. After testing out the new regulations last month in an open test, it remains unclear as to which strategy would be best.
Winner of the 2003 Bud Shootout Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes that a mix of the two will be most likely, with tandems likely to decide the race at its end.
“The two-car tandem is definitely the way to go, as far as speed,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver commented.
“You’re not going to be able to out-run that. That tandem stuff is what’s gonna win the race.”
The tandem drafts certainly worked well for Kurt Busch last year. The 2004 champion won the 2011 Bud Shootout with a push from Jamie McMurray and matched that with a win in the Gatorade Duel qualifying race. However, he will find replicating such form an uphill battle this time around; after his well publicised spat with Roger Penske, Busch landed up at James Finch's single car Phoenix operation, a single car team whose only win to date came at Talladega in 2009 with Brad Keselowski.
Other unfamiliar pairings in race trim for the first time at the Bud Shootout will be A.J. Allmendinger at Penske in Busch's old ride, Kasey Kahne at Hendrick, David Ragan attempting to resurrect his career at Front Row Motorsports, Clint Bowyer at Michael Waltrip Racing and championship winning crew chief Darian Grubb working on Denny Hamlin's #11 at Joe Gibbs Racing Camry.
The race is open to the top 25 in points last year, plus any former Daytona winner not already qualified. In addition to the names mentioned above, the following names will also be vying to end the night in victory lane: Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Michael Waltrip and Jamie McMurray.
Sadly, a lack of sponsorship means that Trevor Bayne, the defending Daytona 500 champion, will not be out on track this weekend. Bayne has the budget for a 13 race Cup program with Wood Brothers Racing, but that does not extend to the Shootout despite his eligibility as a former winner. Terry Labonte, Derrike Cope, Bill Elliott, Geoff Bodine and Ken Schrader, who although were all eligible by virtue of having previously won the '500, do not appear on the entry list either.
Only two drivers who finished in the top 25 last year will not be out to play this weekend. After Team Red Bull folded in the off-season, Brian Vickers has been unable to find a new ride, while the winner of the 1999 Bud Shootout, 53-year-old Mark Martin, will watch from the sidelines as Waltrip drives the #55 MWR Camry the pair will share this season.
Nevertheless, both Martin and Waltrip will race the 500, with Martin stepping into the #55 and Waltrip joining the new Hillman Racing team, which acquired the assets of Germain Racing over the winter break, on a one-off basis. Waltrip, a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 in 2001 and 2003, who will be making a record 75th race start at Daytona, also took an emotional win in the Truck Series there last year on the 10th anniversary of the death of his mentor, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
“When I was a kid thinking about racing in Daytona I never dreamed I would start more NASCAR races there than anyone. That’s amazing,” Waltrip said. “I appreciate what the folks at Hillman Racing including Joe Falk are putting together. Hopefully my experience at Daytona will help them get out of the gate strong with their new team.”
Martin has no hard feelings about missing out this weekend, and will treat it as a learning experience with his new team, having departed Hendrick after two seasons.
“I'm going to put on my Aaron's shirt, a radio headset and climb right up there on the pit box with [crew chief] Rodney [Childers] and watch Michael race,” Martin said.
“I'll be rooting [Waltrip] on, but who knows, maybe I'll get on the radio with him. There's a lot we can learn from Saturday night's race that we can apply to the Thursday qualifying races and the Daytona 500. Every little bit you learn helps.”
In other news, 22-year-old Landon Cassill has signed for an as-yet unnamed team which has acquired the assets of the Red Bull team. Cassill, who had been offered a start-and-park role at Front Row Motorsports, will now have a guaranteed spot in the field for the first 5 races of the year, which includes the Daytona 500. A full announcement, including the unveiling of Cassill's team-mate, is expected in a few days.