You can almost smell the sweet scent of burnt Goodyear rubber and Sunoco ethanol fuel mix and faintly hear the rumble of 800 horses under the hood.
For almost two months, NASCAR fans have been anticipating the start of the season so they’re able to make those senses become a reality again.
Saturday night’s Bud Shootout at Daytona International Speedway will be the first competitive racing of the season for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers. Although this is a non-points race that runs only 75 laps, it gives both the fans and drivers somewhat of a preview to what we’ll see next week in the Daytona 500.
But this isn’t just a mere exhibition event like we see in baseball’s spring training or pro football’s pre-season where veterans go through the motions and rookies try to impress. In this event, the winner grabs over $200,000 in winnings.
What makes it exciting, beyond being our first taste of racing in 2012, is that it’s a short race with two segments making it kind of like a mad dash Saturday night special at our local short tracks.
There is an urgency for the drivers to make something happen early, unlike the 500 mile restrictor-plate races where several drivers just fall back to stay out of trouble until the final 10 laps.
And since there’s no points involved, we also get to see drivers be a little more aggressive than they might be while protecting their place in the standings. If a driver wrecks because of a move he made, so what, all it cost him was a little berating from his garage guys who have to fix the car.
Not every driver is eligible to participate, but almost every driver we want to see will be in the race. To be eligible, a driver must have finished in the top-25 in 2011 driver points, or been a past Bud Shootout winner or past Daytona points race winner. That pretty much covers everyone we want to see and keeps the hobos out of their way.
Following the 2011 season, NASCAR implemented several changes to the Sprint Cup car with most geared at stopping the two-car tandem racing we saw in all four plate races last season.
During Daytona preseason testing last month, our first glance at how the changes would run in race conditions, it looked like the changes didn’t work out as much as NASCAR hoped.
The fastest way around the track was still going bumper-to-bumper with another driver. The gap in speeds between driving alone and in tandem was almost the same as last season.
In those sessions, there were several star performers beginning with new teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. It is Kahne who takes over the No. 5 Hendrick Chevy for Mark Martin.
Clint Bowyer joined Michael Waltrip Racing and will team with Martin Truex Jr for the plate races this season. In one individual session they had the fastest times paired together.
Perhaps the most improbable of drivers who fared well in the testing was Kurt Busch who was fired from Penske following the 2011 season. In the six preseason test sessions, Busch had the fastest single lap as he was pushed by his reliable friend from last season’s plate races, Regan Smith.
Busch is driving the No. 51 James Finch Chevy which has a lot of support from the Hendrick garage. Kurt is easily the best plate racer to never win a points paying plate race, but he did capture the Bud Shootout last season. He also followed that up by winning one of the Gatorade Duels.
Between the equipment Busch has for this race and being given a big dose of reality that this may be his final chance at redemption as a driver after burning bridges with Penske and Roush, I think he has a great shot at winning Saturday night.
It also doesn’t hurt that Kurt has juicy 25-1 odds posted on him at the LVH Super Book to make him even more enticing.