This Saturday night we get our first taste of competitive NASCAR racing under the lights when the green flag drops for the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway.
The shootout is a 70-lap non-points race whose participants are invited to race only if they meet the following criteria — they sat on the pole the previous season at least once or they are a past Bud Shootout winner.
The favorite of the race is Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7-2) based simply on his masterful skills on the Superspeedways. The defending back to back champion, Tony Stewart (4-1) comes in as the second choice.
Traditionally, this race has gone to the most aggressive driver who waits for nothing. With only 70 laps, patience and strategy go out the window. When going down the list of past Bud Shootout winners, it’s littered with the names of only the best along with the best engine builders.
Not surprisingly, the top all-time winner of the Bud Shootout is the late Dale Earnhardt who won six times. The correlation between Bud Shootout winner and Daytona 500 victor has been true only four times in all 24 races. Earnhardt’s only Daytona 500 victory came in 1998, one of the few years he did not win the Shootout.
The most recent Daytona double winner to start the season was Dale Jarrett (8-1) in 2000. That was the year after Jarrett won his only championship and came sizzling into the new season. Jarrett became the only driver to sandwich Daytona victories between a Bud shootout win.
After winning the fall ”˜99 race, 2000 Bud Shootout, and Daytona 500, many came away believing that period was the most dominant display of horsepower in the restrictor plate era at Daytona. Two-time Shootout winner Jeff Gordon (7-1) started the season off with a Daytona double in 1997 en route to one of the most dominating seasons in NASCAR history.
Bill Elliott (12-1) accomplished the feat in 1987, the year he re-wrote all the record books for speed. Elliott’s dominance caused NASCAR to think of ways to slow the cars down on the Superspeedways (aka the evolution of restrictor plates.)
Elliott won the Daytona fall races in ”˜88 and ”˜91, but hasn’t won the Bud Shootout or Daytona 500 since ”˜87. In 1982, Bobby Allison became the only driver to sweep the season, winning all three Daytona races.
In all of these cases, horsepower and the engine builder had more to do with early season double at Daytona than the actual driver. All are Hall of Fame drivers, but the cars were untouchable among their peers.
The only driver and team participating in Saturday’s Bud Shootout that can be considered a notch above the rest in aerodynamics and engines using restrictor plates is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The DEI team has a secret they aren’t sharing with anyone else and given that Junior’s one weakness is lack of patience, that makes him the perfect candidate to win.
Outside Winston Cup:
All the major NASCAR series have finished their Daytona testing. In the Busch Series, Earnhardt Jr. (5-2) who blew by everyone in last seasons Busch opener, was third fastest. The first and second fastest times were turned in by Las Vegan CART driver Jimmy Vasser (12-1) and last season Craftsman Truck Series Champion Mike Bliss (12-1).
Vasser will make his debut in limited 2003 NASCAR schedule for new car owner Todd Braun. Rookie Chad Blount will drive for Vasser when he resumes his CART racing schedule doesn’t permit.
Last Year’s rookie of the year, Las Vegan Brendan Gaughan (8-1), blazed to the top of the charts with the fastest time of the trucks session on the final day. Last season at this same time, Gaughan wasn’t close to what the top drivers were doing at Daytona. Bobby Hamilton Sr. (7-2) will be driving full-time in the Truck Series and is right behind Gaughan. Hamilton has retired from Winston Cup racing and is devoting all his time to his three truck team. Hamilton’s trucks have won the last two Daytona truck races. Chad Chaffin (8-1) will be driving the No. 18, while Bill Lester (20-1) will again pilot the No. 8.
All three trucks were consistently in the Top 5 in times. Only Ted Musgrave (9-2) and Jason Leffler (6-1), along with Gaughan, were able to compete with Hamilton’s Trucks.
Las Vegas Testing: Tony Stewart was fastest in his new Monte Carlo followed by teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who also drive Chevrolet’s, in a four day NASCAR testing session that completed last week. The Palms and Station Casinos sports books have props based on the first three races of the season centering on the Vegas March 2 race. Both Stewart and Gordon tested well at Daytona and Vegas, two of the first three tracks to see action this season. If you think Stewart or Gordon might do particularly well at Rockingham, a wager on either would have some real merit at this point.
Las Vegan Kyle Busch, younger brother of Winston Cup young gun Kurt Busch, will get his chance to show his skills when he becomes legal to drive on his 18th birthday in May. He’ll drive the No. 99 Roush Ford 150 truck. What’s ironic about the age rule is that NASCAR didn’t put it in place until after Busch’s initial season when he was 16 where he drove on a limited basis. The age rule wouldn’t have been so poor in taste by NASCAR if it would have said, "From this point on after Kyle Busch..."
Had this been any other sporting league, lawyers would have flocked to the family in hopes of pursuing a civil lawsuit against a league citing age discrimination and denying a young man to make a living. The Busch family accepted the rule and said little. Until May 18, Jack Roush intends to use a few different drivers to fill in. Reports are that Mark Martin and Kurt Busch will each take a few turns in the truck. No word on who will drive the truck at Daytona.
TOP 5 Bud Shootout prediction:
1) #8 Dale Earnhardt Jr
2) #24 Jeff Gordon 7-1
3) #20 Tony Stewart 4-1
4) #88 Dale Jarrett 8-1
5) #97 Kurt Busch 10-1