Kyle Busch won the closest Budweiser Shootout in history last night in a race marred by several frightening accidents, which included Jeff Gordon barrel-rolling down the front stretch. Busch, who was involved in two incidents himself, took the flag just 0.013 seconds ahead of reigning champion Tony Stewart to take not only his first non-championship Shootout race win, but the first for Toyota since they entered NASCAR in 2006. Australian Marcos Ambrose was third, ahead of Brad Keselowski and Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Denny Hamlin.
“I don’t know how many times I spun out, but I didn’t spin out, you know?” Busch joked in Victory Lane.
His crew chief Dave Rogers was very impressed with the maturity his driver showed to fight back from the setbacks to win – a maturity found distinctly lacking at times last year.
“Today, I think we eliminated all questions of who deserves credit,” he said. “The thing was wrecked twice and he saved it and still drove it to Victory Lane.”
After the race, the drivers were almost universal in their praise of NASCAR for bringing about a return to pack racing after two-car tandems dictated the restrictor plate races last season.
“This was a lot more fun than the two car stuff was,” Stewart said afterwards. “I still like the open motor-races better where we can literally control our own destiny, but this is by far a lot better than what we had with the two-car stuff.”
“I actually had fun racing at Daytona again, which I haven’t had for a while,” he added. “I don’t know what the consensus is from everybody else, but I had more fun as a driver tonight than what we’ve had in the past.”
This was a view echoed by Ambrose, who equalled his best ever finish on an oval.
“I agree with Tony, just what an incredible job NASCAR has done to get back to this style of racing,” Ambrose said. “I think all the drivers appreciate it; it's definitely a lot more fun, more entertaining for the fans and more in control for the drivers, even though we crashed more tonight.”
Ambrose was certainly right in that respect. The first of three multi-car pileups happened as early as lap 9, when Greg Biffle pushed his former Roush-Fenway team-mate David Ragan, now at Front Row Motorsports, into Paul Menard, who was collected by two-time 500 winner Michael Waltrip, with new Hendrick Motorsport man Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya and 2009 Daytona winner Matt Kenseth also getting involved.
After polesitter Martin Truex Jr. hooked his new Michael Waltrip Racing team-mate Clint Bowyer into a harmless spin across the grass, Busch made a miraculous save after contact with 5-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson propelled him across the apron, prompting commentator Darrell Waltrip to exclaim “there are very few people who have driven a stock car who could have done what he just did.”
“Stab and steer, stab and steer,” was how Busch described his escape. “That’s what you do. And some brakes. There are brakes involved, too. I thought I was clear … and I tried going down slowly, and Jimmie just must have been there a little bit, turned me sideways and got me on the apron – scared everybody half to death, including me.”
Stewart was quick to join Waltrip, and said Busch was good value for his win.
“When you get 3,400 pounds moving like that, to catch it one time was pretty big,” Stewart said. “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.'
“It's pretty cool to see somebody that went through two big moments like that to come out and win the race still.”
Then with twenty laps left, Ambrose turned Joey Logano around, and as so often happens in 'The Big One', the drivers approaching behind were left with nowhere to go. Truex could not avoid the spinning Logano, while 2008 Shootout winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun into the path of Kenseth and Kevin Harvick, whose car caught fire in the incident.
A disappointed Harvick, who won the Shootout back to back in 2009-2010, laid into his fellow drivers for their lack of patience, which is an integral quality needed for success at Daytona.
“Everything’s fine, it’s just that guys don’t have a lot of experience in pack racing and things are happening pretty fast,” said Harvick. “You’ll see the same guys cause the wrecks. You’ve just got to give yourself some room and you’ve got to use the gas pedal and the brake pedal and you’ve got to let off.”
The last wreck was by far the most dramatic. On lap 74 of the scheduled 75, Gordon was pushing Busch behind the leader Stewart when the M&Ms #18 got out of shape and began to spin. While taking avoiding action, Gordon drifted up the track into the path of the blameless Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and AJ Allmendinger, who until this point had been riding around at the back all evening with Penske Racing team-mate Keselowski, in the hope of missing the big wrecks. Following close behind, the #48 of Johnson submarined under Gordon's Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, flipping it onto its side before it then barrel rolled 3 or four times, landing on its roof.
Thankfully Gordon emerged unscathed from his devastating wreck, which was the “first time I’ve been upside down in 15 or 20 years.” Following the pileup, just 12 cars took the restart for the green-white-checker two lap dash to the finish. At the restart, Ambrose led from Keselowski, but Stewart, with help from Kyle Busch, stormed past, and on the run to the flag, used the slingshot to pass Stewart and claim the $198,550 prize money.
“I’ve seen the move done before, it was my turn to do it this time,” an elated Busch said about his pass for the win. “[Stewart] knew he was a sitting duck as soon as we got clear of everybody. He knew the race was over. He knew the winner.”