Bud Shootout promises to deliver
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It doesn't matter if you don't know all the rules of the Budweiser Shootout. It doesn't matter if you don't know which drivers are in it.
Forget about all that stuff. Just watch it. You won't regret it.
What type of race will you see Saturday night?
Driver AJ Allmendinger, who wishes he was racing instead of watching the all-star event, describes it this way: "Hairy and scary."
By almost all accounts, this will be one wild show. It's the first time the Sprint Cup drivers will compete on the silky smooth new pavement at Daytona International Speedway under actual race conditions.
Will new mean better? Well, that depends on what you consider better. If it's unpredictable, chaotic and dangerous, then yes, it's better.
"The Shootout is going to be crazy," Jeff Burton said. "It's going to be nuts. It's going to be wide-open every lap, every time."
The ever-changing eligibility rules for the Shootout can get confusing for fans, but most of the stars will take the grid in the 75-lap all-star event.
The 24 drivers in the Shootout include the top 17 in the 2010 standings, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Former Cup champ Bobby Labonte also is in, along with two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip.
"You'll have the best drivers taking the biggest risks, because there's no points involved," Kurt Busch said.
The Shootout always is a wild show, but this one has a lot of unknowns with the new pavement, a $20 million project that was completed in the offseason.
The old surface was rough, bumpy and prone to problems, as everyone saw with the pothole debacle in last year's Daytona 500 that caused a two-hour red-flag in the middle of the race.
All those headaches are gone now, but the new asphalt presents a different set of racing implications.
"The track is so smooth and has so much grip that there's no telling what people will try," Carl Edwards said. "I'm not going to say you'll have more wrecks, but the possibility to have more is out there."
The Shootout also is the first opportunity to see how the cars react with the new front end. The splitter with the ugly braces is gone.
Teams had two test sessions at Daytona in January, but only a small portion of that was drafting practice with cars locked together.
Most drivers expect the racing at Daytona to look similar in style now to Talladega, NASCAR's biggest and most dangerous track.
The track is so smooth and has so much grip that there's no telling what people will try. I'm not going to say you'll have more wrecks, but the possibility to have more is out there.” -- Carl Edwards
Daytona is narrower than Talladega with tighter turns, which means the cars need to handle well to race up front. But handling becomes less of an issue with the smoother surface, enabling the drivers to flat-foot it all the way around the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
"We're not sliding around here now," Kurt Busch said. "It's very controllable. It's very similar to Talladega when that track had its repave. But Daytona is only three lanes of traffic, where Talladega is six lanes of traffic."
The problem is that more grip means drivers will take more chances and try to make Daytona four lanes or five lanes wide at times.
And the smoother surface will lead to tighter packs without much separation, an inherently dangerous situation when cars are inches apart at 200 mph.
"My opinion is it will probably increase the chances of wrecking," said Jamie McMurray, the 2010 Daytona 500 winner. "When you run really close together, it increases that possibility.
"What fans don't see in the plate races is that we [almost] wreck about every lap. Something happens every lap that makes you flinch. It makes you think 'I need to take a breath.'"
Tony Stewart thinks drivers will have fewer of those breathtaking moments because the cars are easier to drive on the new pavement.
"The transitions off of Turns 2 and 4 are a little more abrupt than what we have at Talladega," Stewart said. "But as far as the ride, you literally could hold a full cup of coffee with the lid off and not spill a drop riding around."
Only 24 cars in the race won't show all the things fans will see with 43 cars on the track next weekend in the Daytona 500. But drivers will take more chances and experiment in the Shootout to find out what works and what doesn't on the new pavement.
With a purse of more than $1 million on the line, including more than $200,000 for the winner, it's go time without the normal points consequences that can come from risky moves.
A smoother surface should bring the field together, meaning anyone can win.
"This asphalt is the great equalizer," Kurt Busch said. "That's going to make for a wild start to things."
No one knows for sure what will happen Saturday night. That alone makes it worth watching.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2011 Daytona 500
The 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is on the horizon, with a new racing surface greeting competitors heading into a new season of hope. It all begins Feb. 20 at Daytona International Speedway.