Commentary

Grab a Shootout partner and do-si-do

Updated: February 13, 2011, 1:57 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Welcome to "Dancing with the Cars." Grab your drafting partner and go-go-go.

The new pavement at Daytona International Speedway took the style of tag-team racing we've seen the past few years at Talladega Superspeedway to a new level during Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it best at the end of the first 25-lap segment, saying, "This is ridiculous as s---."

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick
Todd Warshaw/NASCAR/Getty ImagesDrivers paired up Saturday night at Daytona for their version of "Dancing with the Cars."

Replied new crew chief Steve Letarte, "Yeah, it looks it."

But NASCAR's most popular driver didn't mean ridiculous necessarily in a negative or bad light.

"Ridiculous as in crazy, not stupid," Earnhardt said.

This 75-lap exhibition certainly was different than anything we've seen in the history of Daytona, where large single-file packs have been the norm. There was so much two-by-two racing, one started having visions of animals heading for an ark.

And despite what Earnhardt said, it did look stupid at times.

Now imagine it for more than three hours in the upcoming Daytona 500.

"It was fun because it was new," Earnhardt said diplomatically after seeing his day end with a wreck on Lap 28. "I'm sure it can get old pretty fast for the drivers as well."

We shouldn't be surprised. This is what drivers warned it would be like Friday night after speeds exceeded 203 mph as cars partnered for most of the two practice sessions.

But at least then the dancing was done primarily among teammates, as we've grown accustomed. Some of the matchups in the Shootout were like pairing Tom Brady with Betty White in "Dancing With the Stars."

There was Kyle Busch and Earnhardt, who was a regular punching bag for Busch's comments after replacing him at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. There was Ryan Newman, who felt like the fourth car at Roush Fenway Racing because he and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart couldn't consistently hook up.

There was race winner Kurt Busch, who spent the night having his Dodge pushed by the Chevrolets of Mark Martin and Jamie McMurray.

"That was the most unexpected race I've ever been a part of," said Newman, who finished third.

Again, he wasn't being critical.

And the race did produce an exciting finish with Busch getting the win ahead of McMurray because Denny Hamlin went below the yellow line to take the checkered first.

"I think the fans saw a great finish," Hamlin said. "It was three-wide for the win at the finish. The Daytona 500 will be the same."

But races should not be judged on finishes alone any more than they should be judged on how big the wrecks are. Despite a Shootout-record 28 lead changes, it was between only nine cars.

It was more like a square dance, where you change your partners and do-si-do and end up with the same partner at the end.

"The tactics as far as how you work the draft and how you move around and what you choose to do to improve is a little dumbed down from what it used to be," Earnhardt said. "There's a lot less choices to make.

"You're pushing a guy and you just push him to the lead if you can. There's not a lot of art to it."

Well, it's not that simple. Just ask Hamlin.

When we get to the 500 we have a better opportunity to crash and have the big one with this combination. ... I see there being an opportunity for many more mistakes for 43 cars and 500 miles.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"It's an art to it," he said. "Whether it's a big 40-car pack or two-car tandem, there's an art to all this. For me, it was hard. It was strategic trying to get back to the front during the right time.

"There's more thinking. I've got a headache from trying to be strategic through the whole day."

For some it may have been a headache to watch because it's so much different from traditional Daytona racing. In the past with a large pack the driver in second had the advantage because if he pulled out and the pack went with him, the leader was a sitting duck.

Now it appears the driver in third has the edge when the driver in second pulls out because it slows the top two cars.

And there was plenty of strategy. Drivers more than ever had to be willing to work with a partner he might normally avoid. Manufacturer and organization allegiances went out the window.

There also has to be more communication between drivers and spotters from different teams, agreeing when the pusher and pushee will swap places to prevent the back car from overheating.

It'll be even more critical in Thursday's two qualifying races and the 500 because track temperatures will be much hotter, forcing the switch to take place in perhaps three to five laps instead of eight to 18, like Saturday.

NASCAR might have a say in this, too, as the governing body is looking at reducing how much the pressure release valve can cool the water temperature. Officials might also look at shrinking the size of the restrictor plate hole to slow speeds.

That will mean even more lead changes because the cars typically lose 15-20 mph when leaving a two-car draft.

"It'll be a lot different," McMurray said.

It could create more mayhem and open the door for the so-called "big one."

"When we get to the 500 we have a better opportunity to crash and have the big one with this combination," five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. "Because as the pusher you can't see what's going on in front of you. Your spotter in certain situations is trying to clear you while you're three-wide, plus tell you if you can or can't push the guy in front of you.

"I see there being an opportunity for many more mistakes for 43 cars and 500 miles."

The only thing we know for sure is the Daytona 500 won't be like any we've seen, just as the Shootout wasn't. There'll be two-car drafts because larger packs won't go as fast and drivers are all about going fast. There'll likely be record lead changes because the swaps will come more frequently.

There'll be a lot more questions than there are answers, too.

We all got a picture of what was going on in the Shootout. You'll have to pick whether you like it or not. Busch was getting so many questions about what happened that he was "getting a feeling like this didn't count because there were so many unknowns going in."

It was ridiculous, as Earnhardt said.

But was it ridiculously crazy or ridiculously stupid?

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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