The Shootout: Testing Limits for The Great American Race

After weeks and months with a steady steam of news about changes within all three of NASCAR’s top series, fans are now anxious for the season to officially begin with The Great American Race, the Daytona 500 on Sunday, February 26th.

Over the past weekend, fans were reeling in delight as we watched Sprint Cup drivers racing on the high-banks of Daytona International Speedway with the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night!  The 25 Sprint Cup drivers involved in the 75-lap Shootout met and exceeded fans’ anticipation of pack racing’s return to the track.  

Although two-by-two racing was still part of the last laps highlight with Kyle Busch pushing Tony Stewart clear of the the rest of the field and giving him just enough time to pull out and around the 2011 champ to take the first race win of the season. It was the closest finish of the Shootout’s history at .013 second difference between first and second place. 

Listening to many of the drivers after the race, they were happy to be back on the track and had fun in NASCAR’s exhibition event.  Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex, Jr were among the drivers proclaiming they had the most “fun” behind the wheel of their cars, than they’ve had in a while. Thanks to NASCAR’s off-season rule changes intended to bring the pack back to the track, fans and drivers appear happy with the results. All is good, right?

The red marker on the other side
is not good for a 500 mile race

Well, not exactly. From drivers there was one common thread of concern expressed about cars overheating even when drivers were not pushing another car on the track. The rule changes are designed to make cars overheat to minimize two-by-two drafting to just a couple laps. However, it’s also created overheating conditions when driving in packs on the track – and apparently even when not drafting in some cases. So this is something for NASCAR to review over the week to decide if further changes of the rule package are needed before the green flag drops on their premier event this weekend. In all honesty, we should expect some changes to alleviate this concern for drivers. 

Many fans called Saturday’s Shootout a “wreckfest” as the “Big One” also made it’s return to the track. The main culprit behind the wrecking spree is the learning curve of drivers drafting techniques. The big lesson from Saturday night – what could be done with two-by-two drafting is not appropriate for pack drafting. Namely drafting on the left back quarter panel of the cars.

Drivers sometimes will do this because their cars are overheating and they want to get air into their grill to ease the problem. With just two cars drafting together, there’s no issue with this technique. However, doing so at 195 mph in a pack creates a different aerodynamic pattern and in essence will cause the front car to loose it’s downforce and spin, creating havoc for those behind unable to check up in time to avoid the ensuing chaos. 

Kyle Busch, the eventual winner
 with an amazing save on the track

When it happens, most drivers are just along for the ride with no control over the consequences. The only exception is Kyle Busch who made a few exceptional saves on Saturday night, while the others were left in his dust – or some may say flying sparks!  

Although, drafting on the left rear quarter panel is not a new lesson in pack racing, it is a drivers’ instinct to test their limits with the new rule package, just in case they can find an advantage. And in this case, it’s just a matter of re-learning what can and cannot be done to keep them in the race. 

With the safety features implemented within NASCAR, many are comfortable with testing their limits to the max. Thankfully, there’s not been a serious injury for quite a while in NASCAR’s top series, which just further increases the confidence of drivers to test their boundaries whenever the opportunity exists. The Bud Shootout is exactly that perfect opportunity.

Driver commentary post-Shootout leads us to believe the wreckfest will most likely not be as prevalent in the Daytona 500 race. While racers are willing to test their limits in the non-points Shootout event, they are not so willing to push that envelope in their first points event of the season. 

Why? Because drivers learned last season, that every single point counts big with Carl Edwards as the role model of this valuable lesson. 

Last year’s Sprint Cup championship was unknown all the way to the last lap of the last race. Tony Stewart tied Carl Edwards points when he passed him on the track taking first place and leaving Edwards with a second place result. That one position, was just one point that created the tie. In the end, it was Stewart’s five wins compared to Carl Edwards one win, that determined the Sprint Cup championship in 2011. 

Not exactly…Drivers test the limit
 to know their limitations on the track

The reveal for fans in all of this is that while drivers will test their limits in non-point events, we should not expect the same risks throughout the entire season. There may be a few exceptions when the opportunity exists, but drivers understand to win the championship they have to be smart about what they do on the track over 36 point-paying races and every single point can mean the difference in earning the 2012 title.

Every driver on the track dreams of winning the Daytona 500 as the first step on their way to a championship. And while our favorite drivers will always be champions to us, we all want our drivers to hold the Sprint Cup trophy high in victory lane at the end of the season. 

And while this year’s Bud Shootout left less than half the entire field in the game at the end of the race, it did prove to be an amazing testing ground and prelude to The Great American Race – The Daytona 500.