Sunday, February 8, 2009

NASCAR's 2009 Season Starts with a Bang, or is that a Crash?

Several crashes, in fact.  The 2009 Budweiser Shootout did not fail to disappoint in terms of excitement.  If you wanted some bang for your buck, you certainly got your money's worth on Saturday night at Daytona.

Not surprisingly, several of the Shootout rookies went out of the race early with crashed cars, including Joey Logano and Scott Speed.  A late race crash took out last year's winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Bobby Labonte was taken out in that same crash.  By the time the final green, white, checker restart green flag waved, nearly half the field had been sidelined by crashes.  By the time the checkered flag waved, crossed with they yellow even once again, fully half of the starting field of 28 cars were lying in smoking, bent heaps.

Though there were many feats of incredible driving on Saturday night, two in particular stick out in my mind.  The first was during an early melee' which found Jeff Gordon picking his way through a hand full of wrecking cars, missing several by inches.  Viewed in slow motion on the instant replay, one has to be amazed and impressed at how many steering corrections Gordon made in the space of about a second and a half to avoid being a casualty of one of several Big Ones.  My hat's off to Jeff for finishing that race with a more or less intact car in 4th place.

The second great example of driving skill was shown at the very end of the race.  Kevin Harvick, who had been involved in an early scrape with the wall, who at least once lost the draft and was running far behind the pack early in the race, made an amazing charge during the final laps, and squirted to the lead.  Just as Harvick cleared Jamie McMurray, all heck broke loose behind them, bringing out the crossed checkered and yellow flags, making Kevin Harvick the 2009 Bud Shootout winner.  Harvick drove through cars that were slipping and sliding, bumping and banging, and somehow slithered through nearly impossible gaps between cars.  Harvick's performance was an incredible piece of driving, and I offer heart felt congratulations for bringing home the win.  Owner Richard Childress was understandably all smiles in victory lane after the race, knowing his team is off to the best start he could ask for so far in 2009.

Kudos go out to brand new team owner Tony Stewart, who led the Shootout at one point and brought home the number 14 Chevrolet in 3rd place.  That's a pretty good finish for a brand new team in its first race.

There was only one engine failure during Saturday night's race, which I find encouraging.  I personally was expecting at least 3 or 4 engine failures, but the only power plant that let go was the 43 Richard Petty Racing Dodge, driven this year by Reed Sorenson.  Though the Daytona 500 will undoubtedly be tougher on engines than was the 75 lap Shootout, it appears that most of the teams have their engine programs well in order so far this season.  Jeff Burton, driver of the 31 Caterpillar Chevy, blew an engine in Shootout practice, but since there was basically no testing prior to the Shootout, many of the teams were known to be experimenting with different engine packages, and some of these experiments are bound to fail.

All said, it would appear that the drivers, the crew chiefs, and the engineers learned quite a bit on Saturday night, and they now have a full week to prepare for the Big Show.  As I write this, in a few hours qualifying will begin, with 56 cars attempting to fill a 43 car field.  Unfortunately, we've already had one casualty, as the number 60 Dodge fielded by Carter-Simo Racing never completed a full lap at the minimum 175 mph speed.  Apparently battery and carburetor issues could not be repaired to the point that allowed 74 year old driver James Hylton to complete a lap above the minimum speed.

The Gatorade Twin 125 qualifying races  will be on Thursday afternoon, and I have a feeling there will be a lot of NASCAR fans calling in sick that day or developing sudden illnesses that morning.  I have to hand it to NASCAR, I truly had some doubts about this new Bud Shootout format, and though my favorite drivers didn't win, I got way more excitement than I bargained for.

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