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This StoryStream covered everything leading up to the Daytona 500, but for the coverage of the actual race itself – including the jet dryer explosion and other bizarre happenings – the following link is the place to go:
Many people in the NASCAR industry will tell you there's nothing worse than rain at a racetrack, and there's plenty of truth in that statement.
Rain means no racing, which means boredom and frustration and disappointment for fans and drivers alike.
But when NASCAR again rescheduled the start time of the 2012 Daytona 500 on Monday – giving everyone in Daytona more than eight hours to kill before the 7 p.m. green flag – one driver found a unique way to pass the time.
Landon Cassill, who will make his Daytona 500 debut in tonight's race, hung out with fans at a nearby Burger King for nearly two hours, then invited the group to play miniature golf with him on Daytona Beach.
For the nine fans who took Cassill up on his offer, race day at Daytona was an entirely new and memorable experience.
"This has been the craziest day of my life," said a fan known as @markvphotos on Twitter.
"I can't believe we're playing mini-golf with a Daytona 500 driver on the day of the Daytona 500," said @shannonmariep, who was celebrating her 25th birthday.
Cassill met the fans in Burger King (he had tweeted an invitation) and handed out free Whopper certificates on behalf of his BK Racing team. The group sat casually in the middle of the restaurant and chatted about all things racing while autograph seekers and the store's management occasionally interrupted to ask Cassill for a photo or a signature.
For the most part, though, Cassill isn't well known. He's run 48 career races but has never finished higher than 12th.
One of the Burger King employees even mistook him for Tony Stewart; another saw the Burger King logo on his red sweater and asked what store he worked at.
When it was time for mini-golf, the group piled into four cars and made the drive to the beach. Cassill, a putt-putt aficionado, had selected the course and ultimately won the round.
The fans alternated between enjoying the game and snapping photos of Cassill playing, as if occasionally needing to pinch themselves that, yes, this was really happening.
One of the fans – @felipegana on Twitter – had made the trip to Daytona all the way from Chile to see NASCAR's biggest race. Gana had never before played mini-golf – apparently there aren't many courses in Chile – and said he found the entire experience surreal.
Cassill, a 22-year old Iowa native who prides himself on being unconventional, has been known to take such outside-the-box excursions before.
In 2008, he was in Mexico City for the Nationwide Series race and ventured out to a street market against the advice of NASCAR security. Once there, he saw a little boy with a soccer ball and ended up kicking the ball around with the kid; they became fast friends despite the language barrier.
Now with a full-time Sprint Cup Series ride in the No. 83 car, Cassill hasn't changed a bit.
The nine fans who joined him for burgers and mini-golf just hours the biggest race of his life hope he never does.
Here were my thoughts as I concluded my Daytona 500 Sunday morning weather update:
If it does get postponed until Monday, showers are expected through Monday morning and early afternoon. The best chance would be later Monday evening. I don’t know what NASCAR will do if they are faced with a long rain delay later this afternoon. If they decide to wait as late as they can Sunday night, I have a feeling they will be waiting a long time.
Well, the radar cleared out earlier this, but scattered showers and a few thunderstorms have formed this afternoon and could linger into the early evening. Despite the developing rain showers this afternoon, we should be good to go at 7 p.m. with only a small chance of a delay.
4 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Mostly cloudy, sct'd showers & storms – temp: 73
5 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Mostly cloudy, sct'd showers & storms – temp: 73
6 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Mostly cloudy, isolated showers & storms – temp: 72
7 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Mostly cloudy, Slight chance of showers – temp: 70
8 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Mostly cloudy, Slight chance of showers – temp: 68
NASCAR has moved the start time of the 2012 Daytona 500 again, this time postponing the Great American Race until 7 p.m. Monday due to continued rain in the Daytona Beach area.
After two weeks of mostly clear weather, NASCAR was plagued by a storm system Sunday that washed out the 500 for the first time in its 54-year history.
Officials initially rescheduled the race for noon today, but more rain made that an impossibility – and there was more on the radar for this afternoon. But meteorologists are calling for a possible window in the ugly weather, and NASCAR felt confident enough in the forecasts to move the start time again.
The command to start engines will be given at 7:02 p.m., followed by warmup laps and the race. WWE wrestler John Cena was scheduled to do the honors (and wave the green flag), but he has to leave town to appear on WWE Raw. The new grand marshal and honorary starter are unclear.
FOX will preempt its primetime programming, which includes House and Alcatraz. It should be a fascinating experiment for NASCAR to run on a weeknight in primetime (against such shows as The Voice and The Bachelor); that hasn't happened in recent memory.
Will the power of social media give NASCAR some new viewers? If so – and if the ratings are high – it might prompt a new wave of NASCAR races on weeknights.
And what if the race cannot be run as scheduled? NASCAR president Mike Helton told reporters at Daytona International Speedway that Tuesday was "a possibility" for the Daytona 500.
Previously, it had been speculated that a Tuesday race might not allow NASCAR's traveling circus to get to Phoenix in time for Friday's practice sessions. Easter Weekend has been rumored as a backup plan in case Tuesday won't work, but forecasters say the weather should be fine that day.
The start time for today's Daytona 500 – which has already been postponed a day – is set to be pushed back further, as rain continues to fall at Daytona International Speedway.
NASCAR had rescheduled its biggest race for noon ET today after persistent rain washed out the Daytona 500 for the first time in its 54-year history on Sunday.
But with rain still in the area, it's extremely unlikely the race will begin before this evening. SB Nation meteorologist Brian Neudorff wrote in his latest forecast that the rain could let up around 4-6 p.m. local time, which could make for a 6-8 p.m. start time (it takes two hours to dry the track).
My Probability of Racing & Times: Noon (less than 20%) 2-4pm (30-40%) 4-6pm (50%) 6-8pm (better than 70%) #NASCAR all times ET— Brian Neudorff (@NASCAR_WXMAN) February 27, 2012
While the actual start time remains to be seen, this much is clear: The race will not begin at noon. The track is still completely soaked, the jet dryers are not running, and I can see rain falling outside the press box windows.
So if you're at work, stay there. There's no need to fake an illness or call out sick today because it's looking like we could have some Monday Night NASCAR in Daytona.
I promise to keep you updated here and via Twitter (@jeff_gluck) about if, and when, NASCAR will race today.
Here's a picture of what Daytona looks like right now:
Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III took a seat in the track's media center and braced himself for questions about the unprecedented postponement of the Daytona 500.
"A long day," he said. "We attempted our best to try to get the track dry. Seemed like every time we got close, another pocket of rain showed up."
That about summed up what happened to NASCAR's biggest race on Sunday. Though the weather forecasts were dire leading into the day, there was still hope the meteorologists would somehow miss the mark.
But they didn't. There were a few periods of dryness, though none lasted long enough to get close to starting the race. And NASCAR had no choice but to ultimately postpone the event.
"We waited as long as we could in terms of the process, how long it might take to dry the track, and what was reasonable in terms of our fans staying and enjoying the event," Chitwood said.
Here are a few more of Chitwood's answers to some questions you may have:
• How late tonight would NASCAR and the track try to run the race?
"If you started the race at 10 p.m., that would put you at about a 1:45 a.m. finish," Chitwood said. "Then you have to think about the couple hours it would take to send all our customers home. I'm not really sure that's the environment we want to do that.
"I can't tell you the exact latest start time that we would do it. I have a feeling 10 p.m. is probably a little bit too late based on the logistical needs of our customers."
• If rain is in the forecast, why didn't NASCAR schedule the race to be a primetime event like Monday Night Football?
"I think we have to be careful if we were to try and set a later start time (today)," Chitwood said. "(If) we had great weather in the afternoon, then inclement weather by the time we started, I think that would be a disservice to our fans."
• What happens if the race is rained out today?
"It's tough to even talk Tuesday until we get into tomorrow," Chitwood said. "I think the plan with a noon start, I think there is inclement weather in the a.m., but by noon, it looks like the weather is better. We'll play it out best we can. ... I don't even want to talk about Tuesday right now."
• Does Chitwood regret moving the Daytona 500 date one week later?
"I'm sure I'm going to have some customers tell me about the date change and the challenges that we have with it," he said. "But I think weather is unpredictable. So we'll deal with it. I don't anticipate this would force us to change the date in the future.
"I think based on the NASCAR schedule, the TV schedule on whole, this was the right move for the industry. We'll continue to work with the last weekend of February."
Update Monday AM: Daytona start time has been changed to Monday night.
It's 2012 Daytona 500 race day at Daytona International Speedway – again. We've got the scheduled race start time, the TV/radio schedule and some other facts about the postponed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series opener for you below.
What time is the Daytona 500 scheduled to start? After rain postponed the Great American Race for the first time in its 54-year history on Sunday, NASCAR announced a 12:01 p.m. EST start for today. But here's the problem: It's supposed to be raining at that time. SB Nation meteorologist Brian Neudorff believes the race is more likely to take place tonight than around midday – or perhaps even Tuesday.
Race name/distance: The Daytona 500 is NASCAR's greatest spectacle, most prestigious race and also its Sprint Cup Series season opener. NASCAR's Daytona races used to take place on the hard-packed sand of Daytona Beach itself, but this will be the 54th year of running 500 miles on the 2.5-mile high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
TV and radio: Today's race can be seen on FOX, with coverage beginning at noon EST. Every Sprint Cup race will be on FOX for the first part of the season. If you aren't near a TV, the radio broadcast can be found on your local Motor Racing Network (MRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of stations where you can listen (or you can also listen online for free here). If you're looking for something more mobile, make sure to follow me (@jeff_gluck) on Twitter.
National anthem/celebrities: A local woman will sing the nation anthem today after Train's Pat Monahan did the honors on Sunday. Monahan left Daytona before the race was called, along with most of the other celebrities – including the co-grand marshals, Kate Upton and Jane Lynch. The only celebrity who is left is WWE wrestler John Cena, who was already the honorary starter but will add grand marshal duty to his activity list.
Tickets: There are plenty of tickets available, and you should be able to get your pick of seats today at Daytona International Speedway. If you're planning a last-minute trip, buy a frontstretch ticket and then just move to whatever seat you want (the grandstands will probably only be half full).
Weather: Neudorff, the unofficial NASCAR weatherman, is predicting rain throughout the day that will taper off in the evening. The track takes three hours to dry and the race usually lasts three hours and 45 minutes, so Daytona will need a seven-hour dry window sometime today; that might not happen.
Last time: In one of the greatest upsets ever, 20-year-old rookie Trevor Bayne stunned the racing world to win the 2011 Daytona 500. The Tennessee native was a virtual unknown entering last year's Speedweeks but beat Carl Edwards to the finish line to put himself into the history books as the youngest Daytona 500 winner ever.
Starting lineup: Here's the starting grid for today's Daytona 500.
After rain postponed the Daytona 500 for the first time in its 54-year history, NASCAR will try again Monday afternoon at 12:01 p.m. EST
But NASCAR will not be able to escape the rain with the noon start time. Numerous showers and even a few thunderstorms are expected through the morning and into the afternoon.
The chance of NASCAR starting on time Monday is less than 10 percent based on the forecast. By the late afternoon and early evening, it appears drier air will work into the region, breaking up the rain and causing it to diminish as it pushes off to the east and out over the Atlantic.
Rain could begin to end between 4-6 p.m. EST. Allowing for two hours of drying, we could start the race between 6-8 p.m. EST. Maybe FOX can hire Hank Williams Jr. to open up Monday Night NASCAR.
On the remote chance that the race is postponed another day, Tuesday at noon would be the next logical choice. There is still a lot of uncertainty on what would happen if Mother Nature forced NASCAR's hand for another day. Next weekend the Sprint Cup Series is in Phoenix and it has been said that it take around two days for the NASCAR haulers to get from Charlotte to Phoenix.
12 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Cloudy, showers, chance of t'storm – temp: 73
2 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Cloudy, showers, chance of t'storm – temp: 73
4 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Cloudy, chance of scattered shower – temp: 74
6 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Mostly cloudy, chance of isolated shower – temp: 69
8 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Mostly cloudy, chance of isolated shower – temp: 67
For the first time in its 54-year history, the Daytona 500 has been postponed due to rain.
NASCAR will try again to run the Great American Race at noon EST on Monday morning, though the weather forecast for that time remains iffy.
Blame Mother Nature and the NFL for this one. When the NFL was approaching a lockout, it was believed the owners would force an 18-game schedule on the players and thus move the Super Bowl to mid-February.
NASCAR obviously didn't want to risk going up against the Super Bowl – it needs all the publicity for the Daytona 500 it can get – so officials moved the Daytona 500 date one week later than its historic weekend.
As it turned out, the NFL kept a 16-game schedule and the NASCAR season could have started earlier. Last Sunday was sunny and warm for Daytona 500 qualifying – which would have been the normal date for the 500 itself.
SBNation.com contributor Brian Neudorff, a meteorologist, said the best chance for NASCAR to race is Monday evening. Monday afternoon, he said, will still see weather conditions much like today's.
After that, Neudorff believes Tuesday would be a better option – but it's unclear whether NASCAR could hold the race Tuesday and still allow teams enough time to make it to Phoenix, which is the site of the next race.
There was never much hope of getting the race started on Sunday. Rain began falling around 10:30 a.m., and though there were several small windows of dryness, the jet dryers were never able to stay ahead of the weather.
DAYTONA 500 RAIN HISTORY
1963 – First 10 laps run under yellow due to rain.
1965 – Rain-shortened – 133 laps (332.5 miles)
1966 – Rain-shortened – 198 laps (495 miles)
1979 – First 16 laps run under yellow due to rain.
1992 – Laps 84-89 run under yellow due to rain on backstretch.
1995 – Red flag on lap 71 due to rain. Red flag lasted 1 hour, 44 minutes.
2003 – Two red flags for rain. Rain-shortened to 109 laps (272.5 miles)
2009 – Rain-shortened – 152 laps (380 miles)
2012 – Rain postponed.
The most popular question I am getting on Twitter this afternoon is: "Will we race the Daytona 500 today?"
For a brief period this morning, I was thinking, "Maybe, just maybe," as rain to the west appeared to be making a move to the north. Since then, the rain continues to stream in from the west and it doesn't look like we will see it end long enough to dry the track and go racing for an official race.
There is so much rain and moisture coming in off the Gulf and it is heading in a more easterly direction. It is riding a stalled boundary like a train on railroad tracks.
It is appearing more and more likely we won't see the Daytona 500 on Sunday.
WHAT DOES MONDAY LOOK LIKE?
Monday doesn't look much better during the day either. In fact it looks just as bad, if not worse. The earliest opportunity would be Monday night around 6-8 p.m. EST. If NASCAR decides not to run Monday, then it would have to wait until Tuesday. The forecast for Tuesday is mostly dry and partly sunny.
Hit "refresh" to refresh the Radar image ...
3 p.m. ET
Prerace – Cloudy, with showers – temp: 62
5 p.m. ET
Prerace – Cloudy, with showers – temp: 63
7 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Cloudy, rain shower – temp: 63
9 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Cloudy, rain shower – temp: 62
The Daytona 500 will not start on time today.
Rain began falling at Daytona International Speedway at roughly 10:30 a.m. today and has yet to let up, meaning NASCAR's scheduled start time of 1:29 p.m. EST is nothing but a fantasy.
It takes approximately two hours to dry the high-banked 2.5-mile oval – and it's still being soaked by a heavy drizzle – so any racing won't happen until at least late this afternoon.
Daytona has lights, though, and if the rain lets up, we could see the Daytona 500 decided in primetime. NASCAR will do everything it can to get the race in today since the forecast for Monday looks even worse.
The Daytona 500 has never been postponed by rain in its 53-year history. But this is also one of the latest dates ever for a Daytona 500, because NASCAR moved it two weeks in an effort to avoid a conflict with the Super Bowl when it was believed the NFL would expand to an 18-game schedule.
Despite the wet conditions, Lenny Kravitz went on with the pre-race show as scheduled and performed four songs, including "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" and "American Woman." Fans clad in brightly colored rain ponchos huddled close together for Kravitz's concert and the pre-race driver introductions that followed.
Stay tuned here and follow me on Twitter (@jeff_gluck) for more updates on when the Daytona 500 will actually begin.
Assuming the Daytona 500 takes place today – and that might be a big assumption, considering the iffy weather forecast for NASCAR's biggest race – whoever wins the event will spend the next four days traveling the country on a national media tour.
After the Daytona 500 winner goes to Victory Lane and does dozens of media interviews tonight, he (or she) can either celebrate all night or opt for a few hours of sleep.
On Monday, the champion will join fans and media for a breakfast, where the winning car will be inducted into the building formerly known as the Daytona 500 Experience (it's now just part of the track tour).
As soon as the ceremony ends, the Daytona winner will fly to Connecticut to spend the day making various stops around ESPN's Bristol studios. Expect to see the champ on SportsCenter, chatting on ESPN.com, being interviewed on ESPN Radio and doing a variety of other shows.
When the ESPN duties are over, the 500 winner will then fly to Chicago, check into a hotel and get a few more hours of sleep.
On Tuesday morning, NASCAR will bring its winner to a Chicago Bulls shootaround. Whoever wins the race will be shooting hoops with Scottie Pippen and also take part in a fan event somewhere in the city.
Then it's off to Dallas, where the Daytona winner will get another taste of basketball. The driver will attend the Dallas Mavericks' game against the New Jersey Nets and be honored during the first quarter. He or she will also visit the locker room and meet players prior to the game.
The winner won't have much time to watch the game itself, though; by halftime, the NASCAR plane will be in the air and headed to Los Angeles.
That brings us to Wednesday. After sleeping in a little bit, the Daytona champ will spend the day visiting various shows around Hollywood (Trevor Bayne went on Ellen last year, for example) and attend a fan event at the famous Pink's hot dog stand (11 a.m. Pacific time, for those interested).
After the L.A. visit wraps up, it's back on the plane and off to San Francisco.
On Thursday morning, when the rest of the Sprint Cup Series drivers will be flying to Phoenix after a few restful days at home, the 500 winner will have another long day in store.
In San Francisco, the driver will participate in a fan event at Ghiradelli Square and design his or her own ice cream sundae. They'll also hop on a trolley and take a scenic tour to various San Francisco sites like Fisherman's Wharf – stopping for photo ops all along the way.
Then it's off to Phoenix – next weekend's race is there, after all – where the winner will attend a charity function at the Biltmore hotel that evening.
The kicker to all this is that by the time the Daytona 500 winner is done with a week of media obligations, it'll be just hours before they're back in a race car at Phoenix.
It's a brutal schedule. Surely, though, it's all worth it if it means becoming a Daytona 500 champion.
There's a lot of benefits to being a NASCAR fan, but one of the biggest drawbacks is the sport's lack of consumer tech offerings.
For example: There is no iPhone app, and there is no place to legally view a live stream of today's Daytona 500. Yep, that's right – NASCAR and its partners haven't been able to come to an agreement on how live streaming would work for the Sprint Cup Series when FOX is broadcasting the races (NASCAR.com/Turner owns the digital rights, so there's a conflict).
Live streaming will likely arrive in 2013 when NASCAR itself takes over the rights to NASCAR.com, but those fans who can't get in front of a TV to watch FOX today are pretty much out of luck – at least in terms of legal feeds. We can't recommend any illegal live streams to you here, so you'll have to ask a friend for that information.
But there is one option for those who may be stuck at work today – the Motor Racing Network is offering a free radio feed of its broadcast today.
You can find the live MRN feed here.
And if listening to the race is not an option for you, make sure to follow me on Twitter (I'm @jeff_gluck). I'll be up in the Daytona International Speedway press box today tweeting about all things Daytona 500.
Maybe the first thing you're wondering this morning is: "What does the forecast look like for the Daytona 500?"
Honestly, it doesn’t look very good. It will rain today, and the race will be delayed and there's a good chance it could be postponed.
Now that we are seeing rain on radar throughout Florida, we can answer the following questions: When will the rain arrive? Will rain hit the track? And, what is the likelihood that the Great American race is delayed or postponed?
WHEN WILL THE RAIN ARRIVE? As of 8 a.m. EST, rain is falling along the western coast of Florida. The rain will slowly spread east through the morning into the afternoon. The air is dry at the surface and for the rain to make it all the way to the surface, it has to start to saturate all the levels from top to bottom. This will take a couple of hours, and just because rain may be seen on radar won't always mean it is reaching the surface. Sadly, I believe rain starts to impact Daytona International Speedway between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. EST.
WHERE WILL IT RAIN? I expect the rain to fall along and north of the I-4 corridor that runs from Tampa up to Daytona. Daytona International Speedway will be right along the southern extent of the rain. Once the rain arrives later this morning/early afternoon it will last a couple of hours.
WILL IT BE A WASHOUT? As I stated above, it will rain today and rain will fall at the track. NASCAR will do everything it can and wait as long as necessary (see Atlanta's fall race last season) to get the race started and completed on Sunday. I'm stopping myself just short of calling today's 54th running of the Daytona 500 a washout, but the likelihood that this race gets moved to Sunday night or Monday is around 70 percent.
In light of what is going today, it is interesting to note that in the 53-year history of the Great American Race, the Daytona 500 has never been run on a Monday. Four of the 53 races (1965, 1966, 2003, 2009) have been called early because of either rain or darkness. And 39 races out of 53 (73.6 percent) have been run on days with no rain recorded (I want to thank William Schmitz, of the Southeast Regional Climate Center for the NASCAR weather stats).
WHAT DOES MONDAY LOOK LIKE? A lot of people have already been asking the following questions: "Daytona has lights; how late will the rain last?" and "What does Monday’s forecast look like?" Once the rain arrives, it is expected to be steady into the afternoon and evening. There are scenarios that the rain could start to break up later this evening and night and make the Daytona 500 a night race. That has a 50 percent likelihood.
If it does get postponed until Monday, showers are expected through Monday morning and early afternoon. The best chance would be later Monday evening. I don’t know what NASCAR will do if they are faced with a long rain delay later this afternoon. If they decide to wait as late as they can Sunday night, I have a feeling they will be waiting a long time.
9 a.m. ET
Prerace – Cloudy, possible shower – temp: 61
11 a.m. ET
Prerace – Cloudy, light rain shower – temp: 63
1 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Cloudy, rain shower – temp: 64
3 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Cloudy, rain shower – temp: 62
It's 2012 Daytona 500 race day at Daytona International Speedway, and we've got the actual race start time, the TV/radio schedule and some other facts about NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series opener for you below.
What time does the Daytona 500 actually start? The Daytona 500 is listed as an 1 p.m. Eastern start time, but it's important to note the green flag won't actually fly until 1:29 p.m. So if you're looking to tune in just as the race is about to start, perhaps flip on your TV at 1:17 p.m. – that's when co-grand marshals Kate Upton (the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model) and Glee's Jane Lynch will give the command for drivers to fire their engines. WWE superstar John Cena will then wave the green flag at 1:29.
Race name/distance: The Daytona 500 is NASCAR's greatest spectacle, most prestigious race and also its Sprint Cup Series season opener. NASCAR's Daytona races used to take place on the hard-packed sand of Daytona Beach itself, but this will be the 54th year of running 500 miles on the 2.5-mile high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
TV and radio: Today's race can be seen on FOX, with pre-race coverage beginning at noon EST. Every Sprint Cup race will be on FOX for the first part of the season. If you aren't near a TV, the radio broadcast can be found on your local Motor Racing Network (MRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of stations where you can listen (or you can also listen online for free here). If you're looking for something more mobile, make sure to follow me (@jeff_gluck) on Twitter.
National anthem: Train's Pat Monahan will sing the national anthem today following a pre-race concert by rocker Lenny Kravitz. Country singer Martina McBride sang the anthem last season, and Harry Connick Jr. did the honors in 2010.
Tickets: The Daytona 500 is not a sellout. As of late this week, there were still tickets available for NASCAR's Super Bowl – mostly on the Daytona "Superstretch" (the backstretch), but also a few in Turn 1. If you're thinking about making a last-minute trip to the race, you may be able to pull it off with face value tickets.
Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman is concerned today's Daytona 500 may be the first Great American Race ever to be postponed. A system of rain showers is moving into north Florida around midday today, and there's a concern the showers may drop further south and affect the race. If the rain hits, there will not be any windows of dry weather in which to get the race completed. Even more concerning is the weatherman's prediction that Monday may not be any better.
Last time: In one of the greatest upsets ever, 20-year-old rookie Trevor Bayne stunned the racing world to win the 2011 Daytona 500. The Tennessee native was a virtual unknown entering last year's Speedweeks but beat Carl Edwards to the finish line to put himself into the history books as the youngest Daytona 500 winner ever.
Starting lineup: Here's the starting grid for today's Daytona 500.
Finally – finally! – all the hype and buildup for the 2012 Daytona 500 is over and race day itself has actually arrived at Daytona International Speedway. Let's take a look at the lineup and starting grid for NASCAR's biggest race.
Carl Edwards will lead the field to the green flag today (1:29 p.m. Eastern, FOX) thanks to the pole position he earned in last Sunday's time trials. His Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Greg Biffle, will start alongside him, also because of the time trials.
The second row consists of the drivers who won Thursday's Gatorade Duel races: Tony Stewart on the inside and Matt Kenseth on the outside.
From there, Dale Earnhardt Jr. starts fifth and Regan Smith, Marcos Ambrose, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton and Elliott Sadler round out the top 10 for the "Great American Race."
Several drivers had to earn their way into the Daytona 500 after showing up for Speedweeks without a guaranteed spot in the race. That group included last year's Daytona 500 champ, Trevor Bayne, whose Wood Brothers Racing team did not obtain the top 35 owner points to lock the youngster into the event.
Bayne made it, though, using a fast time in qualifying to secure a spot along with David Stremme and Tony Raines.
Michael McDowell, Robby Gordon, Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek also raced their way into the Daytona 500 by virtue of their performance in the Gatorade Duel.
In addition, Terry Labonte made the field by virtue of his past champion's provisional, which is a reserved spot that goes to NASCAR's most recent past champion who needs it.
Those who failed to make the race included fan favorites Michael Waltrip, Kenny Wallace and Bill Elliott, along with Robert Richardson Jr., Mike Wallace and JJ Yeley.
For more Daytona coverage, make sure to follow our Daytona 500 StoryStream. We've posted a ton of updates from Speedweeks there so far, with many more to come from the track today.
Here is the starting lineup for the 2012 Daytona 500:
New to NASCAR? Maybe just want to refresh yourself on some of the storylines leading into Sunday's Daytona 500? Here are a few notes of interest to give you an idea of what to watch for in the Great American Race.
How unpredictable is the Daytona 500? In the last 10 years, there have been 10 different winners.
While you would think we might see someone end that streak, the wide-open nature of restrictor-plate racing means an out-of-nowhere winner is very much a possibility.
A year ago, there was no one who foresaw Trevor Bayne – in just his second series start – taking the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane. But, lo and behold, that is exactly what happened.
So don't be shocked if someone like David Ragan or even Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is celebrating a win on Sunday night.
Whether it was after the 187.5-mile Budweiser Shootout or the 150-mile Gatorade Duel races, all week long the talk in the garage has been about the difficulty of keeping the engines cool and running to their full capacity – and that was in far shorter races than today's 500-mile affair.
So you can imagine the concern up and down pit road regarding a possible rash of engine failures. As such, look for teams today to put an even greater emphasis on managing their engine temperatures as best as possible.
The winless streak on which Dale Earnhardt Jr. finds himself heading into the year is currently 129 races and counting. But today, with the return of the pack-style racing that plays to his strengths, Earnhardt Jr. has an excellent chance to return to Victory Lane for the first time since Father's Day 2008.
If he can do so, it would be his second 500 victory and the seventh for car owner Rick Hendrick, which would also mark Hendrick Motorsports' 200th win.
The only woman to ever have won an IndyCar race will officially make her Sprint Cup Series debut today in the sport's marquee event. With Danica Patrick's fulltime arrival, Danica Mania has officially taken over NASCAR.
While expectations on the Sprint Cup side of things have been tempered, she has shown in limited Nationwide Series starts that she does have a good understanding of how to run in the draft. Whether that carries over to today remains to be seen.
There are quite a few prominent names still looking for their first victory in the Daytona 500. Chief among them is Tony Stewart, who has 17 wins in various events on the 2.5-mile track – yet none in the biggest race of them all. Other big names also looking for their first 500 win include Carl Edwards – who will lead the field to the green – Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and the outside polesitter, Greg Biffle.
Anytime the series races at Daytona or Talladega, the primary goal among drivers is not to get caught up in one of the frequent multi-car accidents which are a common occurrence anytime the series runs on a restrictor-plate track. These accidents referred to as "The Big One," can happen at time and certainly will play a large role in determining who is around at the end, challenging for the win.
Look for drivers to try a variety of strategies in an effort to avoid getting swept-up in "The Big One," including some drivers lagging behind the large pack and waiting until the closing laps to make their move forward.
• Seven drivers – Tiny Lund, Mario Andretti, Pete Hamilton, Derrike Cope, Sterling Marlin, Michael Waltrip and Trevor Bayne – all scored their first Sprint Cup Series win in the Daytona 500.
• Dale Jarrett was not only the last driver to win the 500 from the pole; he was also the last driver to win the Budweiser Shootout and the 500 in the same year. Both feats occurred in 2000.
• Danica Patrick, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Gilliland all will be starting at the back of the field after being forced to backup cars following accidents in their respective qualifying races.
• Today's field will consist of seven former Daytona 500 winners. They are: Jamie McMurray (2010), Matt Kenseth (2009), Bayne (2011), Jeff Gordon (1997, '99, '05), Kevin Harvick (2007), Ryan Newman (2008), Jimmie Johnson (2006) and Earnhardt Jr. (2004).
• If Trevor Bayne can repeat his win of a year ago, he will join Richard Petty (1973-74), Cale Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) as the only drivers to win consecutive Daytona 500s.
• Three drivers – Patrick, Stenhouse and Landon Cassill – all will be making their first start in "The Great American Race."
1. Tony Stewart
As noted above, this is a hard race to peg one driver as the definitive favorite. But if you had to pick one person to win, it would have to be Tony Stewart. With a runner-up finish in the Shootout and a win in his Thursday qualifying race, it's obvious the offseason hasn't cooled off the guy who steamrolled to his third Sprint Cup championship just three months ago
2. Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth's name isn't one that's usually mentioned when looking for a potential winner at either Daytona race. But let's not forget, the '03 series champion has won this race before (2009), won his Gatorade Duel race Thursday, has the patience needed to weave his way through the numerous accidents which will surely occur and is driving for the team who has had fast cars throughout Speedweeks.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ignore the fact NASCAR's most popular driver hasn't won a race in three-and-a-half years. Instead, focus on the fact Earnhardt Jr. has found his confidence, excels at restrictor-plate racing and has been fast all week.
In a race where realistically anything can and will likely happen, it's not easy tabbing one driver to pull out a surprisingly good finish – and maybe a win. That said, although he might not technically qualify as a "sleeper," my pick is Regan Smith.
The driver for the single-car Furniture Row Racing team will have the same powerful engine in his car as Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray will have in theirs. As he demonstrated in last year's Daytona 500, when he ran with the leaders all afternoon and left with a seventh-place finish, Smith knows the fast way to get around Daytona.
In a wide-open race where it seems like just about anyone can win, finding a favorite can be a tough thing to do.
But if there is one constant in restrictor-plate racing, it's that the cars owned by Richard Childress will almost certainly be toward the front of the field and contending for the win.
Longtime RCR driver Dale Earnhardt won a record 34 races in a variety of cars at Daytona, but mostly for Childress. His legacy stands today as perhaps the greatest restrictor-plate racer ever.
So when you drive for the man who owned Earnhardt's car – and who has won six championships and 100 races – being competitive in the Daytona 500 isn't just the expectation, it's the standard.
On Sunday, that attitude will be on full display as all four of the RCR cars are expected to be challenging for Childress' third victory in the Daytona 500 (Earnhardt and Kevin Harivick have one each).
Carrying the RCR flag Sunday will be Harvick, who took Childress to Victory Lane in this race in 2007 and is coming off consecutive seasons where he finished third in points.
Thus far, Harvick and two of his RCR brethren – Jeff Burton and Elliott Sadler – have had relatively quiet Speedweeks. At times, though, the trio has taken its turn up front, be it in last Saturday's non-points Budweiser Shootout or Thursday's twin qualifying races.
"I think it has been pretty calm," Harvick said Friday. "Obviously the results, we wish could be a little bit better. Our cars have been fast. Got caught up in an accident in the Shootout, and just made a bad decision yesterday (in the Gatorade Duel race).
"All in all, everything has gone well. We'll just keep the wheels, the engines, the fenders and everything on it for awhile on Sunday, and see where we wind up at the end. It should be a fun race."
Having an uneventful Daytona can't be said for the fourth RCR car driven by Paul Menard, who has crashed out of both races he's run and, as a result, will be starting the 500 in a backup car.
If there is a concern for RCR entering into the weekend, it would have to center on reliability – an issue which hampered the team a year ago. It was then that Burton and Harvick came into the 500 as heavy favorites, but neither made it to the halfway point as both were sidelined by engine failures.
It's an issue which might again rear its ugly head on Sunday, unless RCR can find a way to keep its engines cool.
"The temperatures are just way too hot; you can't really race," Harvick said after his Duel race, where he finished in the seventh position. "Everybody is just trying to position themselves for the last lap. The grilles are so tight that, at 240 degrees in the pack, you are just sitting there and you can't really make a move."
Harvick's teammate, Jeff Burton, agreed with that assessment.
"It's hard," he said. "They (engines) are borderline too hot. If you run too long, you get the engines too hot. It's just a real challenge. I think what you saw today is what you are going to see on Sunday. It's just hard to make any ground up. You make a move trying to be aggressive and you lose a spot. It's very much going to be a 'protect your position race' until you get yourself in the last little bit. Then, you are just going to have to go like hell and hope for the best."
In a race where the only thing you can expect is the unexpected, going like hell and hoping for the best sounds like a sound strategy.
It's a strategy which has served RCR well in the past – as it did Earnhardt himself – and should serve the team well again tomorrow.
Danica Patrick's maiden race as a full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series driver didn't go as planned.
Patrick was turned by JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt on lap 50 of Saturday's 120-lap Drive4COPD 300, sending her crashing into the wall for the second time in three days. She finished a disappointing 38th and was initially angry about the incident, asking on the team radio, "What the fuck was he thinking?"
"I don't think it's ever great when teammates come together," she told reporters afterward. "So we'll have to figure out what happened and move forward."
The incident occurred when Whitt was trying to hook up with Patrick in a two-car draft, but he made contact at a bad angle and sent the No. 7 car around.
"I mean, I didn't mean to turn her around or anything," Whitt said. "It's just trying to get hooked up and do the two-car tandem and (Patrick) got turned around in it."
Whitt said he thought his relationship with Patrick would be fine moving forward, despite her initial anger.
"I wouldn't expect her to be happy about it; I wouldn't be happy about it either," he said. "I don't know why anyone would expect her to be like, 'Oh yeah, that's great.'
"I mean, we're teammates. We want our teams to win, and that's why we were trying to push each other there anyway. We want to get our team up front, together."
Patrick had won the pole position for Saturday's race – becoming the first female to sit on a NASCAR pole since 1994 – but said her finish was a "bummer" because of the bad start to her championship hopes.
"Now I'm in the championship and every race matters, every point matters, which is why we got out there again (with a repaired car)," she said. "But there are so many other days where your car isn't perfect, or isn't great, or isn't super-fast, and nothing happens to you. And you think, 'Why, on the days when I have a really fast car, does it have to happen today?' But it did, and we'll move on."
Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said he was "tickled to death" with getting the pole and told his team it was a "successful weekend" despite the bad finish.
He said the contact between teammates was "no big deal."
"He got into her at the wrong place, and that's the way it happens," Eury Jr. said. "Her and Cole can talk about it. It's no hard feelings. We're all a team here."
Patrick said she didn't plan to think about what happened in the Nationwide race for too long, considering the Daytona 500 is now only hours away.
"I can't dwell on today," she said. "I need to buckle down and focus, I need to get ready for tomorrow for the big day. And hopefully we have a better day."
In a weekend of unlikely winners, James Buescher took the checkered flag under caution in Saturday's Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race with wreckage from the cars of the likely winners strewn behind him in Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway.
Buescher, a first-time winner in the series, took advantage of a last-lap wreck involving front-runners Trevor Bayne, Tony Stewart, Elliott Sadler, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Busch to score the victory, one day after rookie John King won his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in his first trip to Daytona.
Brad Keselowski dodged the wreck to finish second, with Elliott Sadler coming home third in the unofficial results.
A race that had been peppered with minor incidents produced a huge one on Lap 104, when the front of the field accordioned in Turn 4, and cars began checking up and wrecking mid-pack. All told, 20 cars were involved in the crash, including the machines of Denny Hamlin, Kenny Wallace and Justin Allgaier.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ducked to the bottom of the track to avoid the wreck and sustained minor damage to the right side of his Chevrolet. After a four-minute stoppage to pry the splitter from Wallace's wrecked car from the Turn 4 wall, Earnhardt restarted 14th on Lap 113.
But Earnhardt fell victim to a 14-car pileup one lap later when contact from David Ragan's Ford turned Sam Hornish's Dodge to trigger the multicar wreck.
Pole-sitter Danica Patrick exited the race on Lap 49, after a hard tap from Cole Whitt, her teammate at JR Motorsports, knocked Patrick's No. 7 Chevrolet out of control and into the Turn 3 wall.
Patrick's team pushed the car to the garage for extensive repairs, losing 48 laps in the process. She returned to the track on Lap 98 and finished 38th, an inauspicious start to a championship campaign.
Here are the results from the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona today:
Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl Kate Upton and three players from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants highlight the celebrity list for the 2012 Daytona 500.
Upton will be co-grand marshal for the race along with Glee star Jane Lynch, who played Ricky Bobby's mother in Talladega Nights. Both women also appear in the upcoming The Three Stooges movie (the actors who play the Stooges will be there, too).
The Giants will be represented by a trio of defensive players: Mathias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. Pro Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann will also attend.
The pre-race entertainment includes Lenny Kravitz – who will perform three songs before the race – and the group Train, who will sing the national anthem.
SmashMouth lead singer Steve Harwell will be on hand, as will former Beverly Hills, 90210 star Jason Priestley.
The race will be started by WWE wrestler John Cena, and four UFC fighters – Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar, Christopher Tuchscherer and Donald Cerrone – are also expected to attend.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will reportedly be in Daytona before the race begins, but the track has yet to confirm those plans.
In the previous 53 editions of the Daytona 500, the 35 gentlemen who have been victorious have come from a variety of locations.
We've seen winners from as far west as Washington (Derrike Cope) and California (Ernie Irvan, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick) to as far north as Wisconsin (Marvin Panch, Matt Kenseth) and Massachusetts (Pete Hamilton).
Overall, 17 different states can assert they have had a Daytona 500 champion born within their respective borders.
But only once has a driver born outside the United States tasted success in NASCAR's ultimate race.
This, of course, was Mario Andretti, who was born in Italy and became a naturalized United States citizen in 1964 – three years before his win in the 500.
On Sunday, another foreign driver has a very good chance to add his name alongside the legendary Andretti name –Marcos Ambrose.
While Ambrose may not have open-wheel and Formula One World Championship on his resumé like Andretti, his credentials are more than satisfactory. In fact, when beginning his career, Ambrose wished to follow in the same path as Andretti and one day compete in Formula One.
But racing is an expensive proposition. Despite having the necessary talent to compete in the world's most popular form of motorsports, what Ambrose didn't have was the money.
After failing to secure a ride in Europe, Ambrose returned to his native Australia and begin racing touring cars – essentially modified sedans – and quickly asserted himself as one of his country's premier racers. Ambrose won back-to-back V8 Supercar championships and became the only driver to win at least one race every season in which they participated.
But wanting more, Ambrose left Australia to pursue a career in NASCAR.
It was then Ambrose began honing his craft and learning the nuances of racing on ovals – something he had never done before – in the Truck and Nationwide Series.
In short order, the Aussie found his way into NASCAR's top series and set out to do the one thing he had yet to cross off on his racing bucket list – win a Sprint Cup race.
After several near-misses, he finally accomplished his goal when last August at Watkins Glen, he took the checkered flag in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen.
Although it may have taken awhile for the magnitude of what he accomplished to set in, Ambrose is now fully aware of what his triumph truly means.
"It's had a huge impact on my life," Ambrose said last week during NASCAR's Media Day. "I can't describe how just one day, one lap can make such a difference in your life. I got paid more. I got more respect out there on the racetrack. The sponsors love it. The teams love it. The fans love it. I got more fans out of it, so it's been great.
"I can't for one second believe it could make such a difference, but it does. To win on the main stage is important, but I didn't realize how important it really was."
Now, the task for affable Aussie is to win on an oval. And this takes us to this weekend and tomorrow's Daytona 500.
Throughout Speedweeks, Ambrose's No. 9 Ford Fusion has consistently been one of the fastest cars on the 2.5-mile track.
In last Saturday's Budweiser Shootout, Ambrose was able to avoid the carnage which collected such names as Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and finished a very respectable third.
That speed was again evident in Thursday's first Gatorade Duel, when he ran with the leaders all afternoon and was good shape for the win, running third on the last lap when the caution fell for Danica Patrick's violent crash on the backstretch.
With his third-place finish came the seventh starting spot in Sunday's season-opener. And when you also factor in how fast the Ford teams collectively have been since unloading in Daytona, and that Ambrose will have three cars with a blue oval on their hood starting in front of him, a win is certainly within the realm of possibility.
"We learned a lot for Sunday, we got a good result," Ambrose said following his Duel race. "We are smiling right now, but it was very close to being the other way around. I am proud of my Stanley Ford team. We have great power and a good handling car. Our team is rolling. We've had a great Speedweeks and we are going to keep it that way for the 500 and have a good Sunday."
And if it doesn't happen, that's fine too. Because at the end of the day, Ambrose is living the dream and doing something he loves.
"Racing is my passion and I've lived my passion," Ambrose said last week. "I've lived my dream and I'm still living it. Not many people can say they wake up and they're living out their dream. I wanted to be a professional race car driver. I wanted to race for a living and I'm doing it, so it's a good thing."
What would be an even better thing is becoming just the second international driver to put his name on the Harley J. Earl Trophy.
Then, he and Mario Andretti really would have something in common.
The threat of rain remains a concern for Sunday's Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
Clouds will linger after the cold front on Saturday, and it will be gray through the morning but some clearing will take place in the afternoon. The main concern still remains the chance of rain Sunday with a disturbance coming out of the Gulf of Mexico.
There's an image posted below from one of the computer models. All the forecast models have been consistent, bringing most of the moisture into northern Florida. As you can see from where the "X" is located, this is very close to Daytona International Speedway.
These kinds of forecasts can go either way. There is not enough confidence to say, "Yes this is a washout," and, honestly, I don't believe it is. I am just concerned that showers will move in toward the middle or end of the race and possibly shorten it.
Unlike some systems where rain moves through and it is over, once rain arrives with scenarios like these it stays around for some time and is slow to exit.
10:30 a.m. ET
Sprint Cup Final Practice – Mostly cloudy – temp: 59
1:15 p.m ET
Nationwide Race – Partly sunny – temp: 62
1 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Mostly cloudy chc. of showers – temp: 66
Count 'em. John King now has three victories.
The first two came on rural short tracks in Virginia. The third was a shocker – Friday night's improbable victory in the NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway.
It took three attempts at a green-white-checkered-flag finish for King to win his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in his eighth start in the series and his first on a superspeedway.
King was in the lead in the third overtime when Joey Coulter's Chevrolet flew into the catch fence on the frontstretch after James Buescher's Chevy turned sideways from contact with the truck of Ron Hornaday Jr. Coulter walked away from the wreck.
The resulting caution froze the field and made a winner of King, who still seemed amazed at his accomplishment when he talked to reporters after the race.
"This is feature win No. 3 for me – in my whole career," King said. "It's unbelievable. I couldn't imagine being here, and we're here."
A hard crash on Lap 104 – four laps into overtime at the 2.5-mile track – took out race leader Johnny Sauter, who turned into the outside wall in the tri-oval off the bumper of King, igniting a multicar melee behind them.
"Golly, I flat freakin' wrecked him," King lamented on his radio after NASCAR red-flagged the race to clean up debris from the wreck.
Five laps and an 11-minute stoppage later, after a torrent of reassuring words from crew chief Chad Kendrick, King was in victory lane. Timothy Peters, King's Red Horse Racing teammate came home second. Justin Lofton was credited with a third-place finish, followed by Travis Kvapil and Jason White.
"All I know was, the closing rate was real fast, and I couldn't get off of him," King said of the contact with Sauter's car. "I'm a rookie, and I've never pushed (another car in the draft) in my life, and this is my first time at Daytona Speedway or any superspeedway.
"I apologize to him from the bottom of my heart. It wasn't my intention at all."
A caution on Lap 61 for a crash involving John King, Cale Gale and Mike Skinner provided a window for drivers to make their final pit stops. The trip down pit road failed to break up the dominant combination of Turner Motorsports drivers Buescher and polesitter Miguel Paludo.
Nelson Piquet Jr., the third of the Turner drivers, took the lead soon after a restart on Lap 69, and the Turner Chevrolets ran 1-2-3 as the race closed in on the 75-lap mark. To that point, Turner drivers had led every green-flag lap.
Lap after lap they maintained that order, Piquet leading Paludo and Buescher, all three trucks hugging the yellow line at the bottom of the track until White led a surge in the outside lane and grabbed the lead from Paludo on Lap 84.
As the trucks approached the stripe on that circuit, Paludo's Chevy turned sideways and slammed nose-first into the inside wall, bring an abrupt end to the Turner triumvirate.
White led the field to the subsequent restart on Lap 91, with Piquet in second, Sauter third and Buescher fourth. White stayed out front until Parker Kilgerman's Dodge spun sideways on Lap 95, scattering the back half of the field and damaging the trucks of David Starr, Ross Chastain, Dusty Davis and Bryan Silas.
Notes: Ward Burton finished eighth in his first start in any of NASCAR's top three series since 2007... Paulie Harraka, who triggered an early wreck, got five straight "lucky dogs" (free passes to regain lost laps) as the highest-scored lapped car. He finished 19th in his first start in the series.
NASCAR drivers have now gone headfirst into the inside retaining wall at Daytona International Speedway on consecutive days.
Fortunately, thanks entirely to the innovative SAFER barrier, both Danica Patrick on Thursday and Miguel Paludo in tonight's Camping World Truck Series race walked away unhurt.
Paludo was running third late in Friday's Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway when he got shuffled out of the pack and took a vicious lick into the inside wall near the entrance to pit road.
The wreck was very similar to Patrick's crash during the Gatorade Duel on Thursday, but at a different location on the track.
Clearly, the SAFER barrier continues to save lives in NASCAR and all of motorsports. Can you imagine where racing would be today without it? Though the HANS device and enhanced cockpits also deserve credit, the soft walls are perhaps the most important safety innovation in racing history.
Here's a video of Paludo's wreck:
Danica Patrick won the pole for the season-opening Nationwide Series race at Daytona, set for Saturday afternoon.
Patrick will be the first woman to start from the top qualifying spot in NASCAR's second-tier series since Shawna Robinson did it at Atlanta on March 12, 1994.
Patrick, the former IndyCar star, garnered a fast lap of 49.250 seconds around the high-banked speedway, averaging 182.741 mph. She turned in the top lap one day after crashing hard into the wall during the Daytona 500 qualifying races.
She was followed by Trevor Bayne, Elliott Sadler, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Austin Dillon. Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart came in seventh in qualifying.
This will be Patrick's first full-time season in the Nationwide Series. She will be driving for JR Motorsports and team owner Earnhardt Jr.
Patrick will also make her Sprint Cup debut in the Daytona 500 on Sunday.
For more on Daytona 500 Weekend, stay tuned to SB Nation's regularly updated StoryStream.
Since its inception, the Camping World Truck Series has always been a mix of emerging talent along with drivers who have experience racing in a national touring series.
As has been the case since 2000, that mix of old and new will be on full display Friday night in the season-opening NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway.
Among the more experienced drivers in the 36-truck field are Ron Hornaday Jr., Todd Bodine, Travis Kvapil and Mike Skinner. Coincidently, all are former series champions and all find themselves with new rides for 2012.
For Hornaday, the series' all-time leader in wins, a victory tonight on the 2.5-mile track would be his first on the historic superspeedway and would rank high on his list of accomplishments. It would also be the first win for his new team, Joe Denette Motorsports.
"It was just three months ago that I didn't have a job," Hornaday said in a team press release. "[Kevin Harvick Incorporated] was closing their doors and I was at a crossroads. I was introduced to Joe [Denette] through Hermie Sadler and the rest is history. Joe is a true race fan and all he wants to do is win. I believe he has put the right people in place and given this team all the tools they need to get the job done.
"Most of the guys that are working on the team were brought over from KHI. We are building our own chassis, have been to the wind tunnel and just put in a pull-down rig so I feel like I am picking up right where I left off. I'm really excited for the 2012 season.
"Hopefully, I can bring home my first truck win at Daytona as a driver, and Joe's first truck win as an owner."
Another veteran competing this evening is last year's championship runner-up, Johnny Sauter. With defending series champ Austin Dillon moving up to the ranks of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Sauter, who lost the title by six markers, will be looking to make a statement tonight that he should be considered the favorite to win this year's championship.
"I'm the wrong guy to be asking about racing here at Daytona in the trucks, because I haven't even been able to hardly finish races here," said Sauter, whose best result in three series starts at Daytona is 17th. "I expect it to be action-packed like it always is. I expect there to be some wrecks. It's very important to just try to finish here and take what you can get."
On the opposite side of the experience spectrum, pay attention to James Buescher, who finished third in points last year and is still looking for his first Truck Series win; Parker Kligerman, driving a truck owned by Brad Keselowski; and Rookie of the Year contenders Cale Gale and Ty Dillon.
Dillon is replacing his brother Austin in the No. 3 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet owned by their grandfather, Richard Childress. This will be Ty's first appearance in a truck at Daytona, but he does have three top-10 finishes in four series starts, all coming last year. Not to mention that he'll be wheeling the same equipment his brother drove to the title last season.
"I've got the trucks that won a championship last year, so I have all the resources and the ability to do it," Ty Dillon said in an interview with NASCAR.com. "I have confidence in myself and my guys that we can go out there and get it done. It's just going to be [about] overcoming our bad days and making them good."
As can be expected when you put drivers with varying degrees of experience on a superspeedway like Daytona, Friday's race will be an unpredictable affair where the winner is often in doubt until the second checkered flag drops. As it frequently happens whenever there's a race at Daytona and Talladega, avoiding "The Big One" is paramount to securing a good finish.
One driver who's proven he knows how to avoid trouble is Bodine, a two-time Truck Series winner at Daytona who in seven career starts has remarkably completed 698 out of a possible 705 laps.
"It's hard to say what the secret is," Bodine said when asked about steering clear of the big wrecks that frequently mar this race. "A lot of guys try to race in the back of the pack to avoid ‘The Big One,' but I like to stay out in front and try to miss it behind me. There is no telling with Daytona -- you can have a strategy but it is not always going to play out. I have been on the good side of the fence for seven races and hope to make it eight."
The NextEra Energy Resources 250 takes the green flag tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET and can be seen live on SPEED.
Budweiser will be taking on a different sponsorship role in the weeks leading up to the Dayton 500 at the beginning of the 2013 season. The beer giant will take its name off the Budweiser Shootout event that kicks off every racing season at Daytona, and apply it to Speedweeks, a 10-day stretch of stock-car races between the Shootout and the Daytona 500. Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood expressed his excitement in a press release sent out Thursday.
"Budweiser is the longest running active partner with Daytona International Speedway and we are incredibly excited to enter this new chapter with them in 2013," said Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood. "The opportunities created by this enhanced partnership are compelling and our fans will benefit the most. The intensity and fun atmosphere that Budweiser brought to the Shootout for so many years will be taken up several notches as they assume a much broader role during Speedweeks and ‘The Great American Race.' "
With Coors Light Pole winners taking part in the Shootout, there may have been a sponsorship conflict between the beer companies. As part of the deal, Budweiser will also have presenting sponsorship of the Daytona 500 pre-race show.
For more from the Daytona 500, stay tuned to SB Nation's regularly updated StoryStream.
The Budweiser Shootout was wild and crazy and wreck-filled. The Gatorade Duels were tame and mild and mostly uneventful (unless your name is Danica Patrick).
So what does that tell us about how the Daytona 500 will look on Sunday? With the starting grid now set following Thursday's Duels, here is how the drivers predict the 500 will go:
NASCAR is trying to dictate physics. Physics says two cars are going to push and they're trying to make rule changes to keep us from doing it, so it is kind of a hybrid of pack racing and tandem racing. It is causing a pretty unsafe situation.
We tore up two really good race cars not of our doing, and they're going to tear up a hell of a lot more. ... I'm concerned we're not going to finish. It is going to make for us riding around in the back and trying to be there at the end. Wait for everybody else to wreck.
I think what you saw (Thursday) is what you are going to see on Sunday. It's just hard to make any ground up. You make a move trying to be aggressive and you lose a spot. It's very much going to be a ‘protect your position' race until you get yourself in the last little bit. Then you are just going to have to go like hell and hope for the best.
The second (Duel) was kind of calm. I think everybody is starting to figure out where we can push, where we can't push. At the end of the day, you can't push in the corners if you are not already on them in the corners. I think everybody is figuring that out.
Just overheating all day and couldn't really go or even race. Just had to keep air on the nose and so that kind of limits you from doing anything. You can't suck up to anybody and get a run and try to get to the front.
The temperatures are just way too hot; you can't really race. The grilles are so tight that at 240 degrees in the pack, you are just sitting there and you can't really make a move. That is why everybody was so content to stay single-file.
I think the (500) will be similar to what you (saw Thursday). You got to get these cars to 500 miles; it doesn't matter what you do at 150. It's a long day.
I think the guys that get impatient are the guys that will get in trouble, and the guys that are smart will race smart. I think that's typically what it comes down to here anyway.
Five hundred miles at a superspeedway is a long, long, long race. You just got to race the race, be careful of who you're around, know when to push, know when to ride and take care of it.
Man, Daytona Speedweeks is flying by, isn't it? NASCAR drivers and teams first took to the track for Budweiser Shootout practice one week ago today, and now there are only two days until the Daytona 500.
In other words, we've now arrived at the "standard" race weekend schedule (if there is such a thing at Daytona). All the unusual elements of Speedweeks are out of the way – the Gatorade Duel races being the most unusual – and what's left are practice sessions and three races.
The Sprint Cup Series cars have practices on both today and Saturday, then will take the green flag for the Daytona 500 at 1:29 p.m. Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Camping World Truck Series races tonight and the Nationwide Series schedule opens Saturday afternoon.
Here's a look at the exact times (all times listed are Eastern):
11 a.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (1 hour)
12:30 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (1 hour)
2:05 p.m. – Nationwide Series qualifying
4:05 p.m. – Camping World Truck Series qualifying
7:30 p.m. – Camping World Truck Series race (100 laps, 250 miles)
10:30 a.m. – Sprint Cup Series final practice (1 hour, 30 minutes)
1:15 p.m. – Nationwide Series race (120 laps, 300 miles)
1:29 p.m. – 2012 Daytona 500 (200 laps, 500 miles)
The seconds and minutes dragged by painfully as Michael Waltrip sat on a golf cart, the picture of failure.
He pulled his hat down over his eyes and buried his head in his hands, unwilling to face the reality of what had just occurred.
Can you blame him?
By no fault of anyone but his own, Michael Waltrip missed the Daytona 500 on Thursday afternoon. The veteran driver made a rookie mistake during the Gatorade Duel qualifying race, and it cost him a spot in his favorite event.
For the first time since 1972, a Waltrip will not race in the 500.
"I just went the wrong way and lost the car," Waltrip said afterward. "I feel like I let everybody down. I raced my way to the front and then I let them down. It's just really hard. I don't know what to say – it's just sad."
Later, Waltrip added: "I just screwed up. I gotta live with it."
And he does – at least until next year's Daytona 500 qualifications offer some redemption.
Midway through the 150-mile race, Waltrip had gained a coveted transfer position into the 500 but gave up his spot on the track to make a pit stop and refuel under green-flag conditions.
As he left pit road, the two-time Daytona 500 champion tried to get up to speed on the apron in Turn 2, then turned up the track. But when he hit the banking, his car bobbled and took a sickening swing toward the wall.
With no one else around, Waltrip lost control and hit the barrier, destroying both his car and his Daytona 500 dreams.
The mistake was twofold. Not only did Waltrip wreck, but NASCAR had told the drivers during their pre-race meeting that it was not necessary to use the apron before blending back onto the track from pit road.
For a man whose quest for admiration and respect has never quite been fulfilled, this was nothing less than a crushing disappointment.
Growing up in the shadow of his Hall of Fame brother Darrell, the younger Michael wrote in In The Blink Of An Eye that he never got the attention he craved from his father. No one took his racing aspirations seriously, and when he eventually succeeded in becoming a NASCAR driver like the brother he idolized, he began his career on an 0-for-462 streak.
After years of struggles, his close friend Dale Earnhardt took a bold chance on Waltrip and hired him to race for Dale Earnhardt Inc. The two formulated a plan to win the 2001 Daytona 500, which would be Waltrip's first race with the team.
And it worked. But as Waltrip streaked toward the finish line, Earnhardt crashed behind him and was killed.
So instead of the ultimate moment of glory and triumph – a celebration of the crowning achievement of Waltrip's career –there was only sadness.
Though he won another Daytona 500 and a pair of Talladega races, Waltrip concluded his full-time racing career without ever really getting the appreciation he sought.
Now semi-retired, Waltrip still shows up at Daytona and Talladega – his two best tracks – in order to perhaps remind people he really isn't that bad at the whole racing thing.
And then Thursday happened. It was a mistake that was entirely avoidable – which Waltrip knew as soon as it happened.
But the heartbreak of embarrassing himself and letting down loyal sponsor Aaron's and the new Hillman Racing team had to be nearly unbearable.
To not feel some measure of sympathy for the man would be to ignore the fact we all make dumb mistakes at times. In this case, it was a particularly public error.
Sure, Waltrip makes goofy commercials and has a TV persona that may be a bit overenthusiastic for some tastes.
But the guy cares deeply about NASCAR. He has a big heart and has poured much of it into racing, only to endure numerous setbacks in his career.
You can certainly add Thursday's crash to that list – and perhaps put it near the top.
After the crash, Waltrip made a mandatory visit to the infield care center and emerged to a gaggle of cameras and microphones and recorders ready to document his response.
He needed a minute to collect himself.
So he took a seat on his golf cart in full view of the media and pulled his blue hat down to shield his eyes from the world.
When he lifted his cap, he winced. Yes, it had really happened. And no, there was no one to blame but himself.
The moment was raw, and it was painful. Reality bites.
Michael Waltrip had missed the Daytona 500.
As NASCAR prepares for its biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, the concern for rain on Sunday continues to grow.
There are no weather concerns for Friday or Saturday. The weather story for Friday is very warm temperatures and strong gusty winds. Highs will reach the mid-80s and winds out of the southwest could gust up to 30 miles per hour.
A cold front sweeps across Florida on Friday night and early Saturday morning. Its passing will be quick, but not before it puts down rain across the area overnight. Rain and the front are gone by Saturday morning, but it will be noticeably cooler as highs only reach the mid-60s.
The main focus has turned to Sunday. What once looked like a dry forecast just two days ago has become increasingly wet and unsettled for Sunday afternoon and evening. Moisture will spread in from the Gulf of Mexico as the same cold front that moved through Friday night begins to come back and become a warm front.
This boundary will creep across north Florida, bringing with it an increased threat of rain Sunday afternoon and evening. Rain that forms along a warm front usually is more widespread and last longer than showers associated with a quick-moving cold front.
Based on the current information, I am still optimistic for Sunday but keep in mind cautiously optimistic. The forecast over the last 36 hours has grown increasingly pessimistic and wet for Sunday. This doesn't mean the Daytona 500 will be a wash, but it is news no one wants to hear and I don't want to give.
11 a.m. ET
Sprint Cup Practice – Partly sunny – temp: 78
12:30 p.m. ET
Sprint Cup Practice – Partly sunny – temp: 81
2 p.m. ET
Nationwide Qualifying – Partly sunny – temp: 84
4 p.m. ET
Truck Qualifying – Partly sunny – temp: 82
7:30 p.m. ET
Truck Race – Partly cloudy – temp: 72
10:30 a.m. ET
Sprint Cup Final Practice – Partly sunny – temp: 61
1:15 p.m ET
Nationwide Race – Partly sunny – temp: 65
1 p.m. ET
Daytona 500 – Clouds, limited sun, increasing chance of showers through the afternoon – temp: 70
We now know what the starting lineup will look like for Sunday's Daytona 500.
The twin 150-mile qualifying races held Thursday at Daytona International Speedway determined the full starting grid for NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl, with Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth winning their respective Gatorade Duel races.
Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle had already claimed the top two spots by virtue of their fast times in last weekend's Daytona 500 qualifying session.
What wasn't determined until today? Which bubble drivers would get into the race and which would leave Daytona heartbroken.
In the first Duel, Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon took the two available transfer spots; Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek did the same in Duel No. 2.
Those four drivers will join Trevor Bayne, Tony Raines and David Stremme – whose time trial speeds earned them a berth in the 500 – and Terry Labonte, who makes the race by virtue of a past champion's provisional.
Going home are big names such as Michael Waltrip, Bill Elliott and Kenny Wallace, along with Mike Wallace, Robert Richardson Jr. and JJ Yeley.
Here is the starting lineup for the 2012 Daytona 500:
Matt Kenseth won a late scramble to the finish line of Thursday's second Gatorade Duel race by taking advantage of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle's ill-timed move.
Biffle tried to cross in front of Kenseth coming to the white-flag lap, but Kenseth turned his wheel to the left and ducked inside to take the lead.
Regan Smith and Jimmie Johnson bumped for position behind him, but Kenseth was able to drive to the win.
Tommy Baldwin Racing's Dave Blaney (12th) and NEMCO Motorsports driver/owner Joe Nemechek (17th) transferred into the Daytona 500, though it wasn't much of a race for the transfer spots. Of the seven drivers who could have taken a transfer spot in the second Duel, only one finished better than 17th.
Kenny Wallace, the fan favorite who was attempting to get RAB Racing into its first Sprint Cup Series race, had motor problems and finished 21st.
Wallace failed to make the Daytona 500, along with Michael Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Mike Wallace, Robert Richardson Jr. and J.J. Yeley.
The second Gatorade Duel was mostly uneventful, and drivers didn't seem to try any big moves until the last couple laps. There were no cautions in the 60-lap race.
Here's how the second Gatorade Duel finished:
Danica Patrick crashed her car on the final lap of Thursday's Gatorade Duel race at Daytona International Speedway, marking an unfortunate end to her first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series action.
Patrick was running at the back of the pack and then tried to make a move down low on the white-flag lap. But Jamie McMurray came down the track on the backstretch and made contact with Aric Almirola, who then ran into Patrick.
The rookie Cup driver headed straight for the inside retaining wall at full speed and collided with it in a violent crash. A split-second before she hit, Patrick let go of the wheel and held her arms up toward her head.
"I just stayed low and we were just making our run down the back, and all of a sudden I got hit," Patrick said. "I don't know if I could have done anything different. It was a pretty fast and sideways trajectory, so I kind of just braced myself."
Patrick is already locked in to the Daytona 500, so she'll just have to start Sunday's race in the rear of the field along with Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard and David Gilliland, all of whom also crashed during the Gatorade Duel.
"I'm just really bummed out we didn't finish the last two corners," Patrick said. "Maybe the backup car will be faster."
Prior to the crash, Patrick said she was feeling comfortable in her first Sprint Cup action and felt it was a fairly calm race. Her confidence is high heading into the Daytona 500, she said.
"I feel good," she said. "I feel comfortable and confident and feel if things fall our way, I can take the experience from today to Sunday. I think it can be a good day."
Here's the video of Patrick's crash:
Tony Stewart won Thursday's first Gatorade Duel under caution, earning the right to start Sunday's Daytona 500 in the third position behind pole-sitter Carl Edwards.
It was Stewart's third Gatorade Duel win, following up victories in 2005 and 2007. The defending Sprint Cup Series champion led for 21 of the 60 laps.
Stewart's win did come at the expense of teammate Danica Patrick, who crashed out on the final lap. Patrick is already in the Daytona 500, so she'll simply have to start in the back of the field on Sunday.
Patrick made contact with Aric Almirola after her former JR Motorsports teammate was shoved down the track by Jamie McMurray. She crashed nearly full speed into the inside retaining wall on the backstretch, but was able to walk away from the unhurt.
Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon both earned spots in the Daytona 500 by virtue of being the top two finishers who hadn't already qualified. McDowell finished fourth and Gordon was fifth. Rounding out the top five were Dale Earnhardt Jr. (second) and Marcos Ambrose (third).
Here are the results from the first Gatorade Duel:
When Carl Edwards addressed the NASCAR media on Wednesday, he told reporters that he wasn't concerned about wrecking his car in this afternoon's Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway.
"This might sound dumb, but I am not too worried about if we crash the car," he said. "We have a good backup car and it is identical and should be just as fast."
But Edwards' Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth isn't buying it. Kenseth noted that Edwards, the Daytona 500 pole-sitter, would lose the No. 1 starting spot for Sunday's race if he crashed today and needed a backup car.
"Well, Carl is lying because he is on the pole if he doesn't tear his car up," Kenseth said Thursday. "I don't think he can start on the pole with a backup car. He is not being truthful at all."
Kenseth also said Edwards wouldn't want to wreck, because all teams bring their best car as the primary ride for the 500 – not the backup.
"If you didn't think this is your best car, they wouldn't have brought this one for the 500," he said.
So what do the teammates agree on?
Both feel the Gatorade Duel races are an opportunity to learn for the Daytona 500. Today's 150-mile qualifying races don't mean anything in terms of points, but they could teach drivers something about what the 500 will look like.
"I would like to race pretty hard in that 150," Edwards said. "Obviously, if it gets really crazy, then maybe I would think about trying to give myself more room. But right now, the mission is to go race and learn."
Kenseth said he'll take a similar approach at the behest of crew chief Jimmy Fennig.
"(Fennig) wants me to race hard, and that is what the fans want us to do and what we are paid to do," he said. "We can learn stuff for Sunday by putting ourselves in all kinds of different positions and racing hard. That is our plan, to try to work our way to the front and hopefully have a shot at the end."
Ward Burton will race in Friday night's Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway, marking the former Sprint Cup driver's first NASCAR action since 2007.
The one-off deal is a venture to help his son, Jeb, who will drive a truck this year for Hillman Racing. Jeb Burton hasn't been approved by NASCAR to run on the larger tracks yet, so Ward agreed to step in.
But the 2002 Daytona 500 winner – and brother of current driver Jeff Burton – is still unhappy with the way his career ended.
"I'll never be at peace with how I went out," he said Thursday. "At the end of the day, I was very loyal – and I didn't have the same loyalty repaid to me, and it got me in the situation I'm in right now. If I had a competitive ride, the comradeship, the sponsorship, I could be right there in that (Cup) garage, eating it up."
From 1994-2004, Burton drove in more than 350 Cup races and twice finished among the top 10 in points. He won five races during that time, including the Daytona 500 and at Darlington (twice), Rockingham and New Hampshire.
But with two races left in the 2004 season, Burton was dumped from Haas CNC Racing (the team that later became Stewart-Haas Racing) in favor of Mike Bliss.
Burton never raced a full season in NASCAR again – partly by choice, and partly by circumstance.
"I was not willing to put myself through the mental anguish of just trying to make the race and not be competitive and be successful – which means top-10, top-five, winning races," he said. "I won't go racing that way."
Fortunately for him, Burton had a life outside racing he was just as passionate about: Conservationism. Burton founded the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, which has a mission to "conserve America's land and wildlife through wise stewardship" and education.
"Leaving the sport was hard and watching the Cup guys practice is hard, but I've got a whole 'nother life back there," he said of his home in rural southern Virginia. "Racing is a career, but that's my lifetime endeavor."
But does he ever wish he was out on the track racing?
"I could be 80 years old and still miss it – and I'll think I could go out there and do it," he said. "I still know I could right now. But, you know, there are some things in our lives we can control and some things we can't, and I just couldn't control what was going on behind the scenes that I didn't know about."
So Ward Burton's return to NASCAR will be oh-so-brief. For his son's sake, he wishes it wasn't.
After all, if Ward was still an active Sprint Cup Series driver, getting a ride for his son would be much easier.
"And he knows that, but I can't fix it for him," Ward said. "If the phone rang from the right sponsor, I don't think anybody can do better with sponsor relationships than I do. And I can drive a race car. But you know, I'm 50 years old. So I don't know if that phone will ring."
The following post is a complete guess and has no bearing on the Daytona 500 whatsoever, so don't blame me if A) Any of this comes true or B) None of this come true. Thank you.
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon will drive to Victory Lane again on Sunday, giving him four victories in the "Great American Race" and matching his number of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships.
Gordon (who won the 500 in 1997, 1999 and 2005) will set himself up for another Daytona win by drafting with new Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne late in the race.
After surviving three "Big Ones" that will eliminate nearly half the field on Sunday, Gordon will find himself in fifth place on a green-white-checkered restart.
Since drivers won't have done as much two-car drafting as last year, many of the traditional pairs will be split up. But Kahne, who has already wrecked two cars this week, will have avoided trouble this time and will restart in seventh place – right behind Gordon.
Because Kahne is in his first race for Hendrick Motorsports, he'll be overwhelmed with a desire to be a good teammate to Gordon do whatever it takes to make team owner Rick Hendrick proud (Hendrick is apparently able to cast the "Make me proud" spell over every employee he's ever had, except for Kyle Busch).
The Kahne-Gordon tandem will pick its way through the disorganized top five and zoom out ahead of the field, 50 yards clear of any other tandem coming to the white flag. Then, coming off Turn 4, Kahne will realize he can actually make a safe move to win the Daytona 500 himself.
But instead, just as he's ready to make a Busch-like pass at the finish, Kahne's engine will blow from having lost all its water pushing Gordon for two laps.
Gordon will then sail to the finish line by himself, Kahne will coast home in second place and the tandem of Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick will finish third and fourth, respectively.
After the race, I will find a winning Powerball ticket on the sidewalk and discover I've won $350 million, then give $1,000 to every person who is reading this post.
So congratulations to me, you and Jeff Gordon.
A sizable number of tickets remain available for Sunday's Daytona 500, though most of the seating options are located on the Daytona International Speedway "Superstretch."
As of Thursday morning, the track's ticketing site still showed up to three seats together in Turn 1 (Lockhart Tower) for $110 apiece, as well as up to 18 Superstretch tickets together (in both the Turn 2 Terrace and Lund Tower) ranging from $65-$125 each.
The continued availability of seats just three days before NASCAR's biggest race indicates it may not be a sellout, which could make it safe to try and buy tickets on race day itself. But speedway officials advise fans to buy tickets ahead of time if they plan to come to the race, since the selection of seats may be limited.
If the attendance is down from the estimated 182,000 people who showed up at last year's Daytona 500, it will be blamed at least in part on the two-car drafts which were prevalent at DIS up until this week.
NASCAR fixed the tandem drafting problem after fans expressed their displeasure for that style of racing and told NASCAR they wanted the big packs back.
Officials listened, but the two-car drafts may have discouraged some out-of-state fans from planning an entire trip to Daytona.
It's Gatorade Duels day at Daytona International Speedway, which means the starting lineup for the 2012 Daytona 500 will be set when this afternoon's qualifying races are finished.
So far, all we know is that Carl Edwards will start from the pole position and Greg Biffle will start second. The rest of the starting positions are up for grabs.
Perhaps more important? Determining which bubble drivers make the big show and which ones are sent home empty-handed.
Below are the starting lineups for each Duel race, with the drivers who are eligible for a transfer spot in bold (including the drivers already locked in via time):
Gatorade Duel No. 1 starting lineup
It's Gatorade Duels day at Daytona International Speedway. We've got the actual race start time and some other facts about today's Daytona 500 qualifying races for you below.
What time do the Duels start? The first Duel race begins at 2:19 p.m. EST (engines will be fired at 2:07 with a command by Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte), followed by the second Duel at approximately 4:01 p.m. The second Duel start time is approximate because NASCAR officials can't be sure how long the first Duel will last.
Race name/distance: The Gatorade Duels are a pair of 150-mile qualifying races (60 laps around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway) which set the field for the Daytona 500. The starting lineup for every other race in the NASCAR season is determined by a time trial, but the Daytona 500 is unique and uses the twin qualifying races. After today's short races -- which each include half the Daytona 500 entrants -- the starting grid for Sunday's main event will be set.
TV and radio: Today's races can be seen on SPEED. If you're stuck at work and aren't near a TV, the radio broadcast can be found on your local Motor Racing Network affiliate. Click here to see a list of stations where you can listen. You can also listen online for free here.
National anthem: Singer Catina Mack of nearby Orlando, Fla., will do the honors today.
Tickets: Wide open. You'll have no problem getting tickets if you want to make a quick trip to Daytona for the Duels. In fact, the Daytona 500 itself has yet to sell out this year.
Weather: The National Weather Service is predicting mostly sunny skies with a high near 85. It will be a bit breezy, however, with wind gusts as high as 25 mph.
Last year: Kurt Busch claimed the first Gatorade Duel race last year by holding off drafting partner Regan Smith, and Jeff Burton edged then-teammate Clint Bowyer to win Duel No. 2.
Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski were both spun in similar incidents during practice for the 2012 Gatorade Duels at Daytona International Speedway on Wednesday – though in separate sessions.
What wasn't similar was the amount of damage each driver's car sustained in the incidents.
In the first practice, Keselowski was spun by Clint Bowyer when the driver of the No. 2 car tried to avoid Ryan Newman's car directly in front of him. Keselowski's brief change in direction was enough for Bowyer to turn him, sending the Penske Racing driver into the grass.
Keselowski's team was then able to fix the car without requiring a backup.
But that wasn't the case for Kahne's No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports ride.
Kahne was spun by Juan Pablo Montoya in Wednesday's second practice, and the ensuing slide through the frontstretch grass tore off part of the car's nose.
The team pulled out its backup car, which means Kahne will have to start at the rear of Thursday's Gatorade Duel (Kahne is in the second of the two 150-mile qualifying races).
"It's hard to point fingers at anyone, you know?" Kahne said. "It's just that everybody is trying to get speed and go. But I didn't spin out by myself. But it's not like he was trying. He was trying to push you and get you going; he just hit me in the wrong spot at the wrong time."
The frequent spins and wrecks so far during Daytona Speedweeks could be a sign of things to come for the Daytona 500, but Kahne said they could also be avoided.
"It's all about where you hit him and where you hit him on the racetrack," he said. "And if you do it in the right spots, you're not going to have a wreck. If you do it in the wrong spots, you will.
"It's not intentional; it's just part of the racing and what we have right now and the way the cars are, but there's a way to do it and a way not to do it if you're going to wreck or not."
Kahne said the team would be fine with its backup car, but the problem is it has no more spare vehicles after that.
"We still have the 150's and a couple more practices," he said. "We haven't gotten off to a real good start yet. We might need to bring more cars down at this rate."
When Thursday's Gatorade Duel 150-mile races (2:19 p.m. EST, SPEED) take the green flag, drivers will have wildly different goals and strategies.
Of the 39 drivers who are already locked in to Sunday's Daytona 500, about half seem to plan on playing it safe and avoiding big pack racing – even if it leaves them with a poor starting position for the main event. The other half feel it's important to drive in race conditions to properly prepare for the 500.
And then there's a third group – drivers like Michael Waltrip and Kenny Wallace, who don't yet have a spot in the field – who plan on going all-out to claim one of the two transfer spots available in each Duel.
Needless to say, the intersection of those differing agendas could prove to be dicey.
"I want to use this race car in the Daytona 500," said Jimmie Johnson, whose No. 48 team plans to play it safe. "I don't want to lose it in practice or in the Duel."
"The biggest variable in the equation is just don't hurt the car that we've got," Tony Stewart said. "We're locked into the race, and I think even if we don't get the starting spot we want, I still think you can come from the back much easier and get to the front. The biggest thing is to just take care of the race car."
But other drivers feel they need to learn something from the Duel in order to properly prepare for the Daytona 500.
"This might sound dumb, but I am not too worried about if we crash the car," Carl Edwards said. "We have a good backup car, and it is identical and should be just as fast.
"My mission is to go race and learn."
Jeff Gordon said he was taking a similar approach, adding his team was in "aggressive" mode.
"As much as I don't want to scratch it up, we want to go out there and put ourselves in race conditions," he said.
Some drivers, of course, don't have a choice. Those on the bubble must go for a transfer spot or risk missing out on the most important race of the year.
For those men, wrecking the car has no consequence.
What: Gatorade Duel 150-mile races
Time: 2:19 p.m. EST Thursday (second race begins after the first one concludes)
Denny Hamlin, to put it nicely, has historically stunk in the Daytona 500.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will race in the Daytona 500 for the seventh time on Sunday and enters the "Great American Race" with a best career finish of 17th.
His average finish? 23.2.
That's not a misprint. Hamlin has never finished in the top 15, even though he's always been running at the finish.
"Our biggest race of the year is the biggest crapshoot," Hamlin said Wednesday. "Most of the time, you've just got to be lucky. That's a lot of our sport nowadays.
"Usually, whoever wins the Super Bowl, it's because they've performed well during the regular season and they performed in the playoffs. For us, it's just like...where you end up (is) because (if) you avoid the wrecks or not."
For that reason, Hamlin doesn't feel he has anything to prove despite his lackluster Daytona finishes.
"For us, our season starts five or six races in," he said. "That's when we know where we stand as far as competition is concerned. ... Here, your fate – you decide some of it, but most of it you don't."
Denny Hamlin's Daytona 500 results:
2006 – 30th
2007 – 28th
2008 – 17th
2009 – 26th
2010 – 17th
2011 – 21st
Average finish – 23.2
Immediately after the chaos of the Bud Shootout subsided, several drivers declared they would race in the back for the Daytona 500.
Trying to navigate the pack for 500 miles, they said, seems too risky. It's a recipe for getting caught up in a crash too early, and it would be better to wait until the final laps to make a charge.
But Dale Earnhardt Jr. has no plans of hanging back in the field, he said Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway.
"I just don't spend a lot of time thinking about riding in the back," he said. "I don't waste a minute of the day doing that."
Earnhardt Jr. has gotten burned recently by hanging in the rear of the field for too long during restrictor-plate races. He and tandem drafting partner Jimmie Johnson tried it twice last season – in the summer Daytona race and fall Talladega race – but they mistimed their charge and couldn't get to the front before the race ended.
"I'm not good at riding in the back, because I've never made it back to the front at the right time," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Me and Jimmie tried to do that the last couple trips, and when it was time to go back to the front, we weren't fast enough or they were too far ahead or the track was too blocked. I don't think I've ever used that style and made it work for me."
Besides, Earnhardt Jr. said, it's a misconception that drivers make the decision to drop to the back prior to the race. The Hendrick Motorsports driver said it's often a choice made depending on how the race is developing.
"You're like, 'Man, these guys are probably going to wreck. I don't want to be right behind them, and I can't get around them because they're three- or four-wide or whatever,'" he said. "So you move back a couple hundred yards. I think it's poor judgment to think about it during the week, because you're not thinking about going and winning the race. You're thinking about going backward."
Anyway, it sounds as if Earnhardt Jr. fans may have something to cheer about during the race on Sunday.
As has been written and said many times, Kurt Busch's mantra this season is to "have fun" and get back to what he calls "old-school racing."
Now with Phoenix Racing after mutually parting ways with Penske Racing during the offseason, Busch enters the 2012 season in a far different position than he has ever in been in his career.
Unlike his previous employers – Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing – Phoenix is a single-car team operating on a miniscule budget.
The irony in all this is while the James Finch-owned team may not have the number of personnel of NASCAR's top organizations, what they do have is engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports. That's the same equipment Tony Stewart raced last year to win his third Sprint Cup championship.
With Hendrick horsepower and cars underneath him, Busch finds himself in excellent position to win his first Daytona 500.
Although Busch has never won the Daytona 500 – or for that matter, any points race on a restrictor-plate track – he's come close several times. On three different occasions, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion has finished second.
The first time was in the rain-shortened event in 2003, when he finished runner-up to Michael Waltrip. This was followed by a second-place finish to Jeff Gordon in '05. And if it's at all possible to get even closer to winning, Busch in '08 pushed his then-teammate Ryan Newman to Victory Lane, giving Roger Penske a one-two finish in "The Great American Race."
"I have finished second three times," Busch said. "I've pushed a teammate to win – Ryan Newman back in 2008. I remember back in 2005, when I had a move to make on Jeff Gordon on the outside going into Turn 3 and I looked in the mirror and saw everybody cutting to the inside to go by me in the draft. I'm like, ‘Man, I just got to block to the inside and take this second-place finish.'
"It kind of eats at me a little bit that I should have taken that risk to go to the high side and see what could have happened off Turn 4."
Second-guessing oneself is understandable considering the circumstances. But Busch makes it very clear a win at Daytona in the 500 would mean more than a win anywhere else.
"It's really the race that can define a driver's career," he said. "It is a big priority – the prestigious value of winning at Daytona, what it does for a driver's career long-term and what it can do for the immediate impact. This race is our spectacle. It is the most important stock car race of the year."
But a win in the 500 would also mean more than just winning the biggest and most celebrated stock car race in the world. With his team lacking a fulltime sponsor, a victory and the $1.43 million awarded to the winner would allow Phoenix Racing to buy some much-needed cars and parts.
"We have one really good downforce car we are going to take it to Vegas," Busch said. "I have to protect it because we need it two weeks later at California. Then, we will need it two weeks after that to go to Texas. So we have to protect our good cars.
"I hope we win the Daytona 500 – that means we will have more of a budget to buy more cars. It is that old-school (mentality) of you have to do well and protect the cars so you have it the next week."
A new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team is vowing to race every lap this season despite an under-the-radar entrance into the sport and a sponsor that has yet to be officially announced.
The BK Racing team purchased the former assets of Red Bull Racing last month and got the keys to its new shop on Feb. 1. Since then, the organization has been scrambling to prepare its No. 83 and No. 93 cars for the Daytona 500 -- all with an air of mystery surrounding the scramble.
Why a mystery, you ask? Because the "BK" in BK Racing stands for "Burger King," but the fast food chain hasn't officially announced its involvement.
Its logos are on the car and the firesuits of drivers Landon Cassill and David Reutimann, but Burger King is not actually an owner of the team.
"BK Racing is owned by a small group that spun off from TRG Motorsports -- a few disgruntled investors who decided to get together and do it themselves," said Wayne Press, one of BK Racing's primary backers. "We wanted to have control of what was going on with the team, which we never had before. If we were going to put the money up, we'd rather control our own destiny."
Front Row Motorsports has sponsorship from fast food restaurants like Taco Bell and Long John Silver's because team owner Bob Jenkins is a major franchisee. But BK Racing has a different kind of partnership with Burger King -- it's just one that hasn't yet been publicly detailed.
In the meantime, the team is preferring not to make a big splash in the media and instead hoping its performance and results will speak for themselves. BK Racing is a full-season effort and will not start-and-park, Press said.
Those who have been around NASCAR for a number of years are familiar with new owners and teams who believe they can make it in the Sprint Cup Series and fail, but Press said there's reason to believe BK Racing has staying power.
"We survived on a shoestring budget with the 71, and we're so much better funded going into this venture with the 83 and 93," Press said. "BK Racing is here to race every race, every weekend, every lap."
Veteran general manager Harry McMullen, who was also formerly with TRG, said he believes joining BK Racing is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
"There are 10,000 people walking around the garage and walking around the streets saying, 'We're going to do this and we're going to do that,' and you can just tell [they aren't],'" McMullen said. "This group here, you just know [they are]. There's a big vision here and I'm certain we're going to fulfill it."
The team will run Toyotas (the former Red Bull cars), and the crew includes former Greg Biffle crew chief Doug Richert. Travis Kvapil will run the No. 93 car when Reutimann is not in it.
"When you shake hands with these gentlemen, you walk out and say, 'You know what? These guys are the real deal,'" McMullen said. "You can just feel it."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will attend the Daytona 500 for the second straight year as a VIP guest, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reported Tuesday afternoon.
The News-Journal, citing a local campaign volunteer, said Romney canceled plans for a Friday fundraiser hosted by International Speedway Corp. CEO Lesa France Kennedy in order to focus on campaigning in Michigan, where he is struggling in primary polling.
But Romney will still come to Daytona Beach, Fla., for a "quick visit" on the morning of the race, the newspaper said.
NASCAR referred questions about Romney's visit to Daytona International Speedway. The Speedway said nothing has been finalized as of Tuesday evening.
Romney also attended last year's Daytona 500, though he wasn't quite in the same spotlight he is now. He was present in the pre-race drivers' meeting and shook hands with drivers and NASCAR officials.
NASCAR, owned privately by the France family, is mostly a Republican sport with Southern roots. Prominent Republican politicians often make appearances at the Daytona 500, as Romney did last year and Sarah Palin did in 2010.
Former President George W. Bush kicked off his 2004 re-election campaign at the Daytona 500, where he was grand marshal.
President Obama has never been to a NASCAR race, though his wife, Michelle, was co-grand marshal for last year's Chase finale at Homestead.
First of all, let's forget that NASCAR wants us to believe Danica Patrick is driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing.
While she technically may be a TBR driver under the rules, Patrick is really a Stewart-Haas Racing employee who was hired by the team, still wears SHR shirts and will drive for SHR in the Sprint Cup Series next year.
So we can assume, then, that her team owner and teammate Tony Stewart will do whatever he can to help Patrick have a successful Cup debut in Sunday's Daytona 500.
But if it came down to it, I wondered, would Stewart really push Patrick to the win and forego his chance at his first-ever 500 victory?
"Absolutely," Stewart said last week.
That seems hard to believe, doesn't it? But here's how Stewart sees it: It's impossible to predict the circumstances at the end of the race, so there's a scenario in which pushing Patrick to the win in a two-car draft could actually result in the best finish possible for himself.
"The hard part is if you break that thing up and try to make a move to go from second to first, you can easily go from second to eighth by breaking the pair up," he said. "... You analyze it at the end, but if it's close and the pack is right next to you, you do what you have to do to get the best finish. You have to make a calculated decision to get the best result you can."
That line of thinking makes sense if you remember last year's Daytona 500 finish. Carl Edwards was right behind Trevor Bayne and pushed him to the win, but Edwards himself had no other options because other cars were so close.
If the situation with Patrick and Stewart in the Daytona 500 is similar to the end of the Bud Shootout – where Stewart was leading and Kyle Busch pulled out at the last second to pass him at the line – Stewart would undoubtedly ditch Patrick for the win.
Stewart flipped the question around and said it was just as likely Patrick's No. 10 car could be pushing his No. 14 car in the final laps, too. But he emphasized there was no way to plan or make a decision on what to do until the white flag is in the air.
"There is nobody out here going to say, 'I'm not going to try to win the race,' but you have to try and analyze what is going on around you," he said. "You may not even have the option of pulling out to try to win it; you may get freight-trained if you do. You have to make the best educated decision at the time."
When I pressed Stewart further and wondered whether he would really trust a rookie in her first Cup race to determine his Daytona 500 fate, his patience for the line of questioning began to run out.
"If that is your partner, you have to," he said. "... Just because you say that is who you want to run with doesn't mean that is even who you are going to be paired up with at the end.
"You guys are getting way too far ahead and putting the cart before the horse here. There are so many things that have to happen to have those pairings at the end of the day, and you have to analyze the situation when you get to it."
Patrick, though, could win the Daytona 500 in Stewart's mind – whether he is pushing her or not.
"Anything can happen here; it is anybody's ballgame," he said. "She did a really good job in July last year in the Nationwide race when I ran with her. I was really impressed at how smooth she was and how good a job she did in the two-car deal.
"There is no doubt in my mind she has the talent to do it."
On the day after a wreck-filled Budweiser Shootout, drivers lined up on pit road and patiently waited their turn for Daytona 500 qualifying. That process seems to take forever at Daytona, so some drivers were a little bored and looked for something to pass the time.
Part of that included talking to members of the media – voluntarily! – while waiting their turn.
I asked several drivers about if the Bud Shootout would change how they planned to race the Daytona 500, since it was obvious pack racing had returned. Most said they would like to hang back and stay out of the pack – because that was a good way to get caught in a crash – but some said they preferred to race up front and be ahead of the trouble.
But one of them (I'm not using his name because the conversation wasn't on the record) had a different reason for wanting to be among the leaders.
"Well, I want to be at the front around lap 100, I know that much," he said.
The driver was referring to the new $200,000 bonus given to whoever is leading at the halfway point of Sunday's race. When it was announced, I dismissed the bonus as a gimmick and figured no driver would pay much attention to it.
But the driver in question sure was aware of it.
"Think about it," he said. "If you're leading at halfway and you get $200,000, then the race pays a minimum of, what, $400,000?"
Actually, it's more like $450,000. One year ago, the 43rd-place finisher received more than $250,000; not a bad day at the office, really.
But in the grand scheme of things, isn't $200,000 a drop in the bucket for these multimillionaire drivers?
"Heck no!" the driver said (though he's not one of the richer ones).
So there you have it. At least one driver in the 43-car field is impressed enough with the prospect of an extra $200,000 to try and lead at halfway.
Overall, the Daytona 500 purse this year will be $19.1 million – a record for the event. The winner is guaranteed to collect a minimum of $1.43 million (and that's not including the contingency awards that get added in if the driver's team is part of those programs).
Here are the minimum payouts for the top five finishers:
Winner – $1,431,325
Second place – $1,050,075
Third place – $759,600
Fourth place – $609,900
Fifth place – $486,550
Of course, it's worth noting that drivers don't get to keep all of their race winnings. A standard driver contract is a base salary plus 40-50 percent of the winnings (the rest goes to the team) and 33 percent of merchandise sales.
But even if they only keep half, that would still be enough money to make most of us happy for a long, long time.
Back in the day, the crewmen who serviced Darrell Waltrip's Mountain Dew-sponsored No. 11 car were known as the "Dew Crew."
The pit crew wore shirts with the moniker on the back and had bright green pants, making them hard to miss during the 1981 and 1982 NASCAR seasons.
Now, after a lengthy hiatus, the "Dew Crew" is returning just in time for the Daytona 500. But this time, it has a much different meaning.
Pepsi will officially re-launch the Dew Crew on Thursday to mark its Diet Mountain Dew sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team this season. The new Dew Crew extends well beyond the pit crew, though, to Earnhardt Jr.'s fans themselves.
"They want the fans to form a 'Dew Crew,' as if they're fans of this car," Earnhardt Jr. said. "So the Dew Crew is the fan base. ... It's the fans that are following that car, and the fans of Diet Mountain Dew and regular Mountain Dew, I suppose."
The Dew Crew will be a virtual online hub for Earnhardt Jr. fans – it will live on Facebook and have its own URL, dewcrew.com (the site isn't active yet) – where they can interact with each other and make decisions that will be reflected at the track.
What kind of decisions? PepsiCo's Christie Shan said fans would be able to vote on things like paint schemes or the design of Earnhardt Jr.'s firesuit.
"We want the fans to be recognized," she said.
Shan said the company's internal numbers show Earnhardt Jr. has more than 30 million fans, but only about one million of those are active in social media. Naturally, PepsiCo sees a big opportunity to expand that platform.
To entice fans to become part of the Dew Crew, Shan said Diet Mountain Dew is giving away Earnhardt Jr.'s firesuit from Sunday's Daytona 500.
Even if he wins?
"Yeah, we'll still give it away," she said. "We hope he does win."
NASCAR is once again turning to the UFC for help with the coveted 18-to-24-year-old male demographic.
Jon Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champ who will fight Rashad Evans at April's UFC 145, has been named an honorary race official for the 2012 Daytona 500.
It's not one of the race's highest honors – like grand marshal or honorary starter – but Jones will still be introduced at the pre-race drivers' meeting and ride in the pace car prior to the green flag.
Jones, who was named "Fighter of the Year" at the 2011 World MMA Awards, beat three former UFC champs in a single season last year.
He becomes the latest UFC fighter to visit a NASCAR race; middleweight champion Anderson Silva was an honorary pace car driver at Phoenix last fall, and bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz will do the same honors at Phoenix in two weeks.
Cruz's visit next month will mark the third time in four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events that a UFC fighter has been named an honorary race official.
Why the influx of MMA fighters? FOX is now broadcasting some UFC events, but it likely also has something to do with NASCAR's struggles to attract young male fans – which UFC has plenty of.
Both sports benefit when there's crossover between their large and distinctly different fan bases, and it's a smart marketing move to try and bring them together.
If you didn't spend every moment of Sunday on Twitter or watching FOX (perhaps you had a job or a family that required some attention), your head might be spinning a bit over Daytona 500 qualifying.
Who is in the field? Who is still on the outside? What's next?
Let's try to break it down:
• Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle took the top two spots for the Daytona 500 during Sunday's qualifying session, but those are the only two drivers who officially have a starting spot. In reality, though, any team which has top 35 owner points from last season – whether they earned them or obtained them – is also in the 500; they just don't know where they'll start yet.
• Aside from the front row, the other 41 starting positions are still up for grabs and will be determined during Thursday's Gatorade Duels, which are a pair of 150-mile qualifying races unique to Daytona. The starting lineup for every other race is determined by a standard time trials session.
• In addition to Edwards and Biffle, Sunday's qualifying did provide some celebration for some other drivers – but for different reasons. NASCAR sets aside three Daytona 500 spots for the fastest drivers in qualifying, so Trevor Bayne, Tony Raines and David Stremme – all who arrived at Daytona with no guarantee they'd be in the race – clinched a berth in the 500 thanks to their speeds.
• In addition, Terry Labonte will be in the race because he was the most recent past Cup champion without a guaranteed spot. NASCAR reserves one spot in every race for a driver such as Labonte, if needed.
• For those not in the field, there are two ways to make the Daytona 500 on Thursday. First, a driver such as Michael Waltrip could simply race his way into the big show by claiming one of the two transfer spots available in each Duel. Second, a driver like Kenny Wallace could rely on someone already with a timed spot – Bayne, Raines or Stremme – to finish in a transfer position and allow Wallace to move up.
• Bill Elliott is in a similar situation, though he could make the race if Labonte claims a transfer spot on Thursday.
• Aside from Waltrip, Wallace and Elliott, he other drivers on the outside looking in are: Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek, Michael McDowell, Mike Wallace, Robby Gordon, Robert Richardson Jr., and JJ Yeley.
To make it simple: There are 10 go-or-go-home drivers and only four more spots available for the Daytona 500. The Gatorade Duels will set the full lineup on Thursday afternoon (1 p.m. EST, SPEED).
You know Kyle Busch did something remarkable when the fans who normally boo him unmercifully roar their approval for him in sincere admiration.
Such was the case Saturday night in the Budweiser Shootout, when Busch stepped out of his car and made his customary bow towards the grandstands after narrowly beating Tony Stewart to score his first victory in NASCAR's annual season-opening, non-points affair.
It wasn't just Busch's win the masses were cheering for; it was the manner in which he went about achieving it.
Not once, but on two separate occasions Busch skated sideways at 200 mph with a pack of cars bearing down on him. Each time, the 26-year-old driver gathered up his Toyota Camry like he was on a quarter-mile dirt track and kept going. It was one of the most extraordinary displays of car control NASCAR has seen in quite some time.
"First time might have been luck," Busch said in the post-race winner's press conference, then added with a smile, "I'm going to say the second time was all skill."
So how did he do it?
"It was interesting from my seat," he said. "I was steering, stabbing, braking, gassing, everything in-between, trying to keep the thing straight and get it back under control."
That he went on to win the race in the manner he did was just icing on the cake.
"Hard to say whether you impressed yourself," Busch said. "I never thought about that. It was certainly cool. I enjoyed it. I wouldn't recommend everybody doing it every day. But certainly it got my attention.
"I was just glad that I was able to pull through it, to be honest with you, to be able to straighten it back out, keep going. Checked my mirror. Everybody ways stabbing the brakes, trying to slow down, thinking I'm going to wreck. We get back going, they're like, ‘Huh, all right.'"
Busch‘s skill behind the wheel even caught the attentions of his peers, including defending Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart.
"I was right behind him when he had the deal in (Turns) 1 and 2," Stewart said. "... He did a fantastic job with that save. I'm sitting there and the green is still out. I'm like, ‘Man, that's the coolest save I've seen in a long time.'
"It was big and it hurt us all at the time, but that was a pretty big moment. Pretty cool to see somebody that went through two big moments like that come out and win the race still."
So what did Busch to prevent himself from spinning out? Basically, it's a combination of luck, instincts and sheer talent.
"It's so hard to explain everything you do, but you're doing it all at the same time," Busch said. "That's just the way it is. Certainly I was like, ‘Man, that was pretty lucky the first time.' It happened the second time. I'm like, ‘Well, I guess I'm lucky again. We'll see where we end up when the checkered flag flies.'"
Add it up and this win stands as one of Busch's more memorable victories.
"You know, this win certainly ranks up there," Busch said. "Being knocked around and beat around, almost spun out a couple times, being able to prevail through all that and still come through. Obviously, there were 10 cars at the end of the race and we didn't have much to pass. It's not like the (Daytona) 500 where there still might be 22 of them or something.
"It was a great race from my seat; hopefully it was from everybody else's."
NASCAR disallowed Clint Bowyer's Daytona 500 qualifying time on Sunday after his car was found to be too low in the left front.
Bowyer's team sent the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota through inspection after the driver posted the 22nd-fastest time of the session, but it flunked the height sticks officials use to make sure cars are within the rules.
After letting the car "settle," the team tried again but had the same result. Bowyer will now have to start his Gatorade Duel – he's in the second of the two 150-mile races on Thursday – in the rear of the field.
"Really very surprised," MWR competition director Scott Miller said. "I don't know if we got something stuck in the bleed hole in the shock, but the front just didn't come back up. It's all the same stuff we ran in practice, and it was coming back up.
"We'll go over there and get to the bottom of it and see what happened."
A NASCAR spokesman said there will not be any further penalties to the team, which is standard procedure in such situations.
Miller said the action was not intentional.
"It's never good to be in this position right here, but as far as the (Gatorade) 150 goes, you're going to be to the front and to the back of that thing," he said.
A late draw and a gust of wind may have cost Trevor Bayne a shot at the Daytona 500 pole, but the defending race winner did earn a significant consolation prize.
With a ninth-place effort in Sunday's time trials at Daytona International Speedway, fastest among drivers who weren't locked into the race, Bayne assured himself of a starting position in next Sunday's 500.
That wasn't quite enough, however, to erase Bayne's disappointment at not claiming a front-row starting spot. Bayne went out 38th for his qualifying laps.
Carl Edwards, who led a Roush Fenway Racing sweep of the front row, was the fifth driver to make an attempt.
"I feel pretty good about the lap," Bayne said. "Last year, I would have been jumping up and down about qualifying in the top 10, but I really thought we had a shot at the pole, as good as our car was Saturday (second-fastest in the final practice session)."
"It's just the wind was against us. Going through (Turns) 3 and 4, I could feel it kind of gusting onto the nose of our car, so at that point, there's not much you can do. I held it wide open, and they gave me a great race car, so I think it's going to race really good, and that's all that really matters."
Though he scored an improbable victory in last year's race, Bayne wasn't locked into the field this year because his car owners, the Wood Brothers, ran a limited schedule in 2011 and finished the season outside the top 35 in owner points.
Accordingly, Bayne was relieved to secure a starting spot in the 500 without having to race his way into the field in Thursday's first Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying race, where he'll start fifth.
"Yeah, it's a lot of relief," Bayne acknowledged. "Now we're back to the same position we were in last year. We started the Duel knowing we were locked in, and it was just wherever we finished, and now we're right back there – so I'm ready for it."
Edwards and teammate Greg Biffle will start first and second in the Daytona 500. The other 41 spots on the grid will be determined by the results of Thursday's Duels.
David Stremme pointed to his No. 30 car – a fire-engine red vehicle with a noticeable lack of sponsorship – and gestured to the handful of crewmen working around it.
"That's the whole team, right there," Stremme said with a chuckle. "We've got eight guys and three dogs at the shop every day."
Logic says Stremme and his Inception Motorsports team have no business being in the Daytona 500. The team is underfunded, unsponsored, undermanned and less than one year old – not exactly a recipe for making NASCAR's biggest event.
But logic doesn't drive race cars, and Stremme's 26th-place qualifying effort during Sunday's Daytona 500 time trials turned out to be just enough to lock him in to the Great American Race.
Now, no matter what happens next week, Stremme's team will take home at least $250,000 in winnings.
"It's a big, big deal for us," Stremme said. "Now we can race some more races coming up and keep going."
With a limited budget, Inception Motorsports did not even bring a backup car to Daytona International Speedway. The one Stremme qualified is the only superspeedway car owned by the team.
Stremme and his investor partners were able to purchase the car after the team start-and-parked in 16 of the 18 Cup races it made in 2011.
"Some people criticize start-and-parks, but we do it to raise money to keep racing," Stremme said. "That's how we got through the winter, and that's how we were able to buy this speedway car."
"We had enough money to go to Phoenix and Vegas, but that's just money from last year that we won. I'm not taking a dime out of it; I don't get paid nothin'."
The former Chip Ganassi Racing driver, 34, believes he belongs at the Sprint Cup Series level. He decided to try and prove that point by starting Inception Motorsports with an investment group last year.
In the offseason, Inception switched from Chevrolet to Toyota after qualifying for 18 of the 23 races it entered in 2011. Stremme and the team arrived in Daytona hopeful they could somehow make the race – but it was far from a sure thing.
"We unloaded off truck, and right there we were borderline to get locked in," he said. "We said to ourselves, 'Well, we might have a chance.'"
The next order of business is finding a sponsor. Stremme said that interested parties can visit InceptionMotorsports.com for more information.
"We can give somebody the exposure a sponsor needs at a minimal value in a big-time area," he said. "We can operate a lot cheaper than other teams, and our goal is to try to run a full season at a minimal cost.
"I think it's a great deal. Hopefully, somebody will jump on board and believe in what we can do."
Winning the pole position for next Sunday's running of the Daytona 500 likely won't do much to take away Carl Edwards' pain of a close Sprint Cup Series championship loss last season.
But it can't hurt, either.
Edwards will start from the top spot for the 2012 Daytona 500 alongside Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle. Last year's Chase runner-up turned a lap of 194.738 mph, just ahead of Biffle's 194.087. That amounts to one tenth of a second.
"This is amazing," Edwards said. "... Coming down here, I didn't really consider the pole as something that was a possibility, so this is huge."
"We're so excited to have two of our cars on the front row," Biffle said. "A team effort all around."
The pole win marked Edwards' first in the Daytona 500 and 12th overall for manufacturer Ford. It's the second pole for team owner Jack Roush.
But Sunday's session wasn't all about the front row. Four drivers without guaranteed spots heading into Speedweeks were given locked-in positions as a result of their fast times.
Defending Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne was the fastest among those, and he'll be joined by Tony Raines and David Stremme. In addition, Terry Labonte is in the field thanks to a past champion's provisional.
Here are the qualifying results – note: NOT the starting lineup -- from Daytona 500 qualifying (non-guaranteed drivers in bold):
Unlike every other NASCAR race this season, the qualifying order for the Daytona 500 was not set by the first practice speeds but rather a random draw.
The lottery balls chose Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray to lead off today’s qualifying session (1 p.m. EST, FOX) – which determines the pole position and outside pole position for next Sunday’s 500 – and for David Stremme and Michael McDowell to wrap things up.
Drivers with top 35 owner points will still qualify first (as usual), followed by the drivers who don’t have guaranteed starting spots. That’s where the real drama is today, because three of those drivers (plus a past champion) will be able to lock themselves into the field based on speeds.
No one wants to have to wait until Thursday’s Gatorade Duel to get into the Daytona 500, so today’s session could be huge for drivers without the promise of a starting spot like Trevor Bayne, Michael Waltrip and Kenny Wallace.
Here’s the order of how they’ll roll off the grid today for Daytona 500 qualifying:
It's Daytona 500 qualifying day at Daytona International Speedway and we've got the start time and some other facts about qualifying for you below.
What time does qualifying start? The most prestigious qualifying session in NASCAR begins at 1:05 p.m. EST today – a session that actually does little toward setting the actual Daytona 500 lineup. Drivers will get two laps apiece, and there's not much more to do than try to put the car on the bottom of the track and hope it goes fast. But everyone wants to win the pole, because it generates a week of publicity heading into NASCAR's Super Bowl.
What happens today? Officially, the Daytona 500 qualifying session only locks in two spots: The pole position and the outside pole position. But it will also allow three other drivers – who don't have a guaranteed spot in the 500 – to clinch a berth in the race based on their speed. The rest of the non-guaranteed drivers will have to rely on Thursday's Gatorade Duels to try and make the field. The Duels set the starting order for the Daytona 500, except for the two top spots decided today.
TV and radio: Today's qualifying session can be seen on FOX. If you aren't near a TV, the radio broadcast can be found on your local Motor Racing Network (MRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of stations where you can listen (or you can also listen online for free here).
Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman predicts rain will threaten today's qualifying session, though he feels it may dissipate by the late afternoon hours. NASCAR plans to wait as long as possible today to try and qualify, and would then bump qualifying to Monday if needed (instead of canceling it and setting the order by the rulebook).
Last time: Many fans were delighted last year when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole for the Daytona 500, hoping it would lead to another 500 win from NASCAR's most popular driver. It didn't happen, though. Winning the pole for Daytona isn't worth much but bragging rights, when it comes down to it.
Rain is a real threat for Daytona 500 qualifying at Daytona International Speedway today.
A cold front will slowly work through Florida during the morning hours and isn't expected to exit until later afternoon or early evening. The air is very moist, which can cause widely scattered showers and even the possibility of an isolated storm or two. Winds will also be stronger and gusty.
Winds will be out of the southwest then west-southwest in the afternoon. They will be sustained from 10 to 20 mph and gusting to near 30 mph.
I'm not saying NASCAR won't get the chance to qualify but I think there is a good possibility that rain threatens and even hits the track some point during the day. Let's just hope it is after qualifying rather than before or during.
1 p.m. ET
Sprint Cup Qualifying – Possible showers, scattered thunderstorms – temp: 78
NO ON TRACK ACTIVITIES
Sunny Skies– HIGH: 65
NO ON TRACK ACTIVITIES
Sunny Skies– HIGH: 74
12 p.m - 1:30 p.m. ET
Sprint Cup practice – Partly sunny, scattered chance of showers – temp: 76
2:30 p.m - 4 p.m. ET
Sprint Cup practice (Final before 150's) – Partly sunny, scattered chance of showers – temp: 78
The mangled sheet metal and car parts were strewn throughout the Daytona International Speedway garage like the set of a disaster movie. And many of the men who drove the machines – even the ones who escaped unscathed – did not look particularly happy.
"Ain't much racing anymore," Clint Bowyer said, walking through the garage. "Just wait your turn to wreck."
"I just feel bad, because I can't do anything to make the car faster for the guys," Ryan Newman said, making the same walk moments later. "You're just at the mercy of the situation. It's not good."
"I don't know what to say," Jeff Burton said. "Plate racing is a huge challenge. One of the great things about the tandem (racing) was it separated the pack; one of the bad things about the tandem is I guess people thought it was boring."
And so we've arrived at this: The 2012 Bud Shootout turned into a Saturday night Demolition Derby, finishing with only 10 cars on the lead lap and half the field in the garage.
But that might not be a bad thing. Depending on your perspective, the race was either a disgrace to NASCAR or one of the most entertaining Shootouts in years.
The fans had told NASCAR they hated the two-car tandem drafts, which had become a phenomenon and dominated Daytona Speedweeks in 2011, so officials reacted by making changes to limit the drafting.
Saturday's Bud Shootout proved the changes worked, restoring the old-style pack racing.
"It was really like you just rewound the clock to three years ago," sixth-place finisher Greg Biffle said.
But eliminating the two-car drafts also turned out to be a case of "Be careful what you wish for." The return of the big packs meant a comeback for the "Big One" – the massive multi-car pileups that have made Daytona and its sister track Talladega famous.
"Look at the guys working on those cars," one disgusted crew member said. "Pack racing is real 'fun,' huh?"
As it turned out, there wasn't a "Big One" on Saturday night, though; there was a "Big Three."
A trio of nasty crashes wiped out most of the contenders and left the race up to Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch to decide. Busch, who had made jaw-dropping saves to keep his car intact and avoid wrecks, beat Stewart to the finish line in the closest-ever Bud Shootout result.
Not surprisingly, both Stewart and Busch were among those quite pleased with the pack racing.
"I had more fun as a driver tonight than what we've had in the past," Stewart said. "... This is a lot more fun than the two-car stuff."
"It's all in the drivers' hands, how boring or how exciting we want to make the race," Busch said. "I think tonight's was pretty exciting."
There were other happy drivers, too – including a couple whose nights ended prematurely.
"I like this kind of racing better," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after crashing out of the race. "At least I know what to expect. I feel like I have a better chance with this style than I did last year, for damn sure."
Even Jeff Gordon, who went flipping across the track and barrel-rolled for the first time in his racing career, said he approved of the pack racing.
"It's pretty wild and crazy, but I like this better than what we had last year, definitely," he said.
But other drivers saw it completely differently.
"You're just running into each other," Brad Keselowski said. "Just a bunch of angry drivers in a traffic jam. It's difficult."
It all comes down to personal preference. Just as with NASCAR fans, the drivers aren't close to a consensus on the preferred form of restrictor-plate racing.
But love it or hate it, pack racing is back. And there are 500 more miles of it to come next Sunday.
"I think that's what the fans want to see, you know?" Biffle said. "And we were only three-wide tonight. Wait until the 500. We're going to be four-wide."
NASCAR vice president of operations Steve O'Donnell met with a small group of reporters on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway for a candid discussion about NASCAR policies and rules. The topics included point swaps, qualifying, the top 35 rule and rookie of the year eligibility.
Below are some of the highlights of the discussion:
O'Donnell said NASCAR is well aware of how fans feel about teams obtaining top 35 owner points in order to get a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500. But NASCAR will continue to allow the transactions because many of them are in the best interests in the sport, according to O'Donnell.
"It's a challenge explaining it," he said. "It's a difficult thing to explain to the fans. We get that. But we've got to have healthy car owners out there, and that's ultimately what we try to do – make sure the garage is as healthy as possible."
In the recent controversy over Danica Patrick's move from Stewart-Haas Racing to Tommy Baldwin Racing, fans and media were upset that NASCAR was allowing the teams to make a joke out of the top 35 system – in which teams inside the top 35 of the owner points are guaranteed a position for the next race.
The move was pitched as Patrick leaving SHR for Baldwin's team and splitting the No. 10 car with David Reutimann. But in reality, Patrick won't be driving the same equipment Reutimann will.
But O'Donnell insisted Patrick was a Tommy Baldwin Racing driver in every sense of the rule. Patrick will be required to drive chassis certified as belonging to Baldwin, and Baldwin himself will be listed as Patrick's crew chief for every race (her previously named crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, will be considered a "race strategist").
"We thought this made sense," O'Donnell said. "This is not a points swap at all; it's a driver coming over (to another team), no different than other drivers have done in the past."
But it is different. Patrick will drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013 and beyond and SHR will likely supply Baldwin with cars for Patrick to use.
The deal gained approval, O'Donnell acknowledged, partially because NASCAR factored in the health of Baldwin's small, independent team.
"If you go back in history, there have been a lot of partnerships that have been put together which allowed teams to get back on their feet a little bit, and that's part of this," he said. "I would say helping Tommy was definitely part of this. Obviously we can't show favoritism, but it's in the best interests of the sport to have an owner like Tommy Baldwin be healthy. For us, that's a good thing."
NASCAR will not consider changing its policy against selling points, O'Donnell said. To obtain another team's points, the owner on the receiving end must still take a minority interest in that team.
NASCAR is looking at different ways to make qualifying "as exciting as possible," O'Donnell said, but that does not include heat races.
However, it could include adjustments to the top 35 rule, such as reducing the number of teams who are locked in to the field.
"As we go and talk to the owners, letting them know this is the challenge we're faced with, is there something else that would do the same thing (as the top 35) that would allow us to bring back some of the excitement in qualifying?" O'Donnell said. "We've adjusted it in Nationwide and Trucks before based on (car counts)."
But O'Donnell said NASCAR is not considering scrapping the top 35 rule altogether.
As recently as Friday, NASCAR had been considering a change to the Rookie of the Year eligibility that would have allowed Aric Almirola to compete for the title. Ultimately, officials decided it was too late.
NASCAR has no viable rookie class in the Sprint Cup Series this season and it wants to use the award to highlight and promote young drivers.
In the future, O'Donnell said NASCAR might ease the restriction on the amount of races a driver can run before losing ROY eligibility. Currently, the limit is seven races for a driver who has declared to compete for points in a given series.
Starting in 2013, NASCAR could expand the rules to allow drivers who have run a half season – or even more – before losing their rookie status. In fact, a "rookie" could mean any driver who has not raced a full season in that series.
O'Donnell said NASCAR will have one more Saturday qualifying session than last year. The sanctioning body is looking at ways to make the weekend schedule more efficient and will tinker with different concepts in the first half of this season.
Similarly, NASCAR wants to find a way to allow young drivers to get more testing time but still maintain a testing policy that helps maintain parity among the teams.
Who is going to win the pole for the Daytona 500?
While it may sound like an unanswerable question due to the unpredictability that is restrictor-plate racing, the truth is it's really not that random.
At the very least, using recent history as our guide along with speeds from today's opening round of practice, we can narrow it down to a select few drivers who will almost certainly be challenging for the honor of leading the field to the green flag in next Sunday's Daytona 500.
The first of the two Daytona 500 qualifying practice sessions has traditionally been more accurate because some drivers don't participate in the final hour.
Here is where the fastest driver in practice eventually qualified for the Daytona 500 – and more telling, where the eventual pole-sitter ranked on the speed charts after the first session.
|Year||Fastest in practice||Qualified||Pole Winner||First practice|
|2011||Mark Martin||8th||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||4th|
|2010||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||2nd||Mark Martin||2nd|
|2009||Bill Elliott||5th||Martin Truex Jr.||4th|
|2008||Jimmie Johnson||1st||Jimmie Johnson||1st|
|2007||Ricky Rudd||2nd||David Gilliland||2nd|
So looking at the last five years, the person who won the pole position for the 500 was no worse than fourth in the opening round of practice. Using this as our barometer, as well as the speeds from practice earlier today, that means the Daytona 500 pole-sitter is likely to be one of the drivers who posted one of the top four speeds in first practice: Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon or Trevor Bayne.
Considering Gordon is the only Chevy driver among the top four, there is a 75 percent chance a car with a blue oval on its hood will win the pole on Sunday.
So let's prematurely congratulate Biffle, Ambrose or Bayne on their accomplishment.
At this time last year, Trevor Bayne was basking in the afterglow of being the youngest Daytona 500 winner in history. The real-life Cinderella story had made just his second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start and, driving for a single-car team with little sponsorship, had shocked the NASCAR world by doing the seemingly impossible.
The future appeared bright for Bayne. Here was a talented, charismatic driver with a quick smile who companies would surely fall over one another to align themselves with, even though the economy had slowed the number of sponsors willing to invest in NASCAR dramatically.
Except that never happened.
Despite the Daytona 500 success and the extensive media exposure that came with it, the anticipated high-dollar sponsorship deal never came.
Not helping matters was Bayne's prolonged battle with Lyme disease, which had him out of the race car for six weeks.
When he retuned to action it was more of the same; running a part-time Sprint Cup schedule for the Wood Brothers while racing full-time in the Nationwide Series for Jack Roush – often with his quarterpanels devoid of any sponsorship.
As the year went by and Bayne further showcased his talent by notching his first Nationwide victory at Texas, nothing came of it.
Some felt that at the end of the year, when businesses were planning their marketing campaigns for 2012, they would see the opportunity to sponsor Bayne.
But as the days ticked away this offseason, it became more and more clear everything that had transpired at Daytona months prior hadn't changed a thing. The 20-year-old Bayne (he turns 21 on Sunday) was in the exact same position he found himself in at the beginning of the 2011 season: Still seeking the chance to take his career to the next level, but not being afforded the opportunity to do so because of a lack of sponsorship.
Bayne won't be running full-time in any racing series this year.
"We're just making the best of what we've got right now and it's tough to do that when you only have a few races," Bayne said during NASCAR's annual Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. "Obviously, as a young guy you want to have championships under your belt and full seasons. I still haven't spent a whole full season with one team yet in Nationwide and I think that would be great to have that opportunity."
It's a point which will further be driven home tonight, as Bayne – despite being eligible – will not be among the 25 drivers taking part in the Budweiser Shootout.
Instead, like the majority of fans, he will be watching tonight's race on television. All because his Wood Brothers team lacked the funding to compete in the non-points affair and didn't want to unnecessarily risk damaging equipment they didn't have the money to fix.
And after Daytona, who knows? Bayne is going to run the first three Nationwide races for Roush Fenway Racing and then the team is going to reassess the situation.
"Here we are at Roush Fenway Racing with great things to offer and it's still tough for us," Bayne said. "So we're working really hard at that, it just shows how tough it is right now."
No matter the continued frustration, Bayne is hopeful – albeit realistic – about the position in which he finds himself. He believes in himself, he believes in his team and he knows he can only worry about the things he controls.
"As a young guy, experience is important and it's crucial for me to be in the car as much as possible," Bayne said. "But I'm fortunate to be one of the guys in the sport that didn't bring money to the table or didn't have my own sponsorship where my parents own a big business, so to have Roush Fenway fund me last year with no sponsorship was a big deal for them.
"It would kind of be hard to expect them (Roush Fenway Racing) to fund a full Cup team this year, two Nationwide teams and all that, so I am a little disappointed because I want to be racing all the time. But, like I said, I'm gonna make the best of it and just go out there and try to win every weekend."
After tonight's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway, here are the key dates and times you'll need to know for the rest of the Speedweeks preparation leading up to the Daytona 500.
Daytona 500 inspection began Friday – where Jimmie Johnson's car was found to have some illegal modifications – and practices for qualifying were held on Saturday.
The official qualifying session will take place on Sunday (1:05 p.m. ET, FOX), but it is different than every other qualifying session throughout the year. Sunday's qualifying will only lock in two drivers (the pole and outside pole positions), and several other drivers will qualify based on speed.
On Wednesday, drivers will have their last chance of practice before the Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races, which take place the following day at 2 p.m. ET. The Duels consist of 150 miles and will determine the starting order for the Daytona 500.
Final practices for the Daytona 500 take place Friday and Saturday, with "Happy Hour" at 10:30 a.m. ET on Saturday. The race itself takes place on Sunday, Feb. 26, starting with driver introductions at 12:15 p.m. ET followed by the green flag at 1:00 p.m. ET.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will also have races at Daytona:
For more on the Daytona 500 stick to this StoryStream and vist SB Nation NASCAR.
Four drivers in tonight's Bud Shootout field had to pull out their backup cars following Friday's practice crash at Daytona International Speedway, and NASCAR decided they'll have to start in the back of the pack as a result.
That means Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski will lose their top-three starting spots, with Kurt Busch (formerly sixth) AJ Allmendinger (ninth) joining them in the rear of the field.
The Bud Shootout lineup was set by a draw last night, and Kyle Busch drew the No. 2 spot (Martin Truex Jr. got the pole). Keselowski was third.
NASCAR considered letting the four drivers maintain their starting positions – which would go against the typical weekend procedure – but ultimately decided that because none of the backup cars had been on track, it could be a safety issue.
The race begins at 8:29 p.m. Eastern and will be televised on FOX.
Here's how the Bud Shootout starting lineup will shape up tonight when the green flag flies (this is unofficial since the statistics don't account for cars dropping to the back):
Elliott Sadler has spent the last three years mulling over a mistake in the 2009 Daytona 500, wondering if he'd ever get a chance to redeem himself.
And when he had no ride for last year's 500, Sadler began to think he wouldn't have a shot at the redemption and glory he so craves. But an offseason phone call from his friend and Nationwide Series team owner Richard Childress changed all that.
Sadler will drive Richard Childress Racing's No. 33 car in the 'Great American Race' and has a locked-in spot thanks to Clint Bowyer's points from last year.
He plans to work with Jeff Burton during the race and figures to have a realistic shot at winning the whole thing.
"It would make my life, man," Sadler said.
Sadler said he can't get over the 2009 race because a small mistake cost him the chance to be a Daytona 500 champion for life.
In that race, Sadler was leading as rain approached. On what turned out to be the final lap of green-flag racing, Sadler let Matt Kenseth slip by him. A caution then came out due to a wreck, and the race was eventually red-flagged due to rain and never restarted.
That gave the win to Kenseth and denied Sadler of achieving his childhood dream.
"To tell you I don't think about it, I'd be lying through my teeth at you," Sadler said.
The circumstances have haunted Sadler ever since. But a phone call from Childress gave him renewed hopes of a Daytona 500 win.
Childress typically calls Sadler once or twice per week to talk about hunting, ask how Sadler's family is doing or ask the veteran driver's opinion of a team decision.
Around the start of the new year, though, Childress left Sadler an urgent message: "Hey, I need to talk to you."
"I didn't know if that was good or bad," Sadler said.
But Childress was calling with some very good news.
"He just said, 'Would you be interested in running the Daytona 500 if I could find sponsorship?'" Sadler recalled, chuckling at his own reaction. "I was like, 'Hell yes! Yes sir! I would love to.'
"He said, 'Well, we're talking to some people. We're going to use your name and see if they want to do this deal. I think you could go down there and win that damn race.' And I was like, 'Yes sir!'"
Childress built him a brand new car – sponsored by General Mills and Kroger – for next Sunday's race, and Sadler is optimistic he can go all-out for the victory.
"I would love to win this race," Sadler said. "... We come down here to win the race."
It's NASCAR race night at Daytona International Speedway and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about tonight's exhibition race for you below.
What time does the race start tonight? The Bud Shootout is listed as an 8 p.m. Eastern start time, but it's important to note the green flag won't actually fly until 8:29 p.m. So if you're looking to tune in just as the race is about to start, perhaps flip on your TV at 8:17 – that's when the command to start engines will be given by a few members of the military.
Race name/distance: The Bud Shootout is a non-points invitational featuring the top 20 drivers in the point standings last year, plus any drivers who have won a previous Shootout or a points race at Daytona. Some eligible drivers (such as Trevor Bayne) are not entered due to lack of funding, but there are 25 drivers in the race overall. The race is a 75-lap event (187.5 miles) which features two segments: A 25-lap opening segment, a 10-minute pit stop and a 50-lap run to the finish.
TV and radio: Tonight's race can be seen on FOX. Every Sprint Cup race will be on FOX for the first part of the season. If you aren't near a TV, the radio broadcast can be found on your local Motor Racing Network (MRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of stations where you can listen (or you can also listen online for free here).
National anthem: The country group Little Big Town will perform a pre-race concert and then sing the national anthem. Next week, the Daytona 500 national anthem will be sung by Train's Pat Monahan.
Tickets: The Bud Shootout typically draws a decent crowd, but it's certainly not sold out. If you want to take a chance on getting last-minute tickets, you'll be OK.
Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman says there's a slight chance of rain showers tonight, but the race should be able to take place. He predicts the temperature will be around 70 degrees for the start.
Last time: In what seems like a lifetime ago, Kurt Busch won the 2011 Bud Shootout for Penske Racing. Obviously, it would be a bigger deal if Busch won this year's race – he's driving for Phoenix Racing now, which has just 18 employees.
Starting lineup for tonight's Bud Shootout at Daytona International Speedway:
NASCAR may have been going to Darlington Raceway longer, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway may hold more history. But one track and one race reigns over both, and it is the site of unquestionably NASCAR's biggest and most prestigious event.
Since it opened its doors in 1959, Daytona International Speedway has been the Mecca of stock car drivers and fans alike. It has been the sight of triumph and tragedy -- sometimes both at the same time -- and has had more than its fair share of memorable moments.
The first 500-mile race on the two-and-a-half-mile track featured a side-by-side photo finish which resulted in NASCAR initially awarding the victory to Johnny Beauchamp before reversing its decision and awarding the win to Lee Petty three days later.
From that moment forth, the legacy of NASCAR's premiere event would only grow.
The second chapter added to the Book of Enchantment that is the Daytona 500 was added four years later when Tiny Lund went to Victory Lane.
What made Lund's victory so special wasn't because it was the first Daytona 500 win for Glen and Leonard Wood, but that Lund was a last-minute replacement for original driver Marvin Panch, who was injured in a testing accident weeks prior. It was Lund who rescued Panch and pulled him out of the fiery wreckage.
As a thank you, Panch asked the Wood Brothers to give his ride to Lund. Lund capitalized on the opportunity and drove the famous No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford to victory.
Richard Petty won his first of seven Daytona 500s when he dominated the 1964 affair, leading 184 of 200 laps and easily earning his first superspeedway victory of any kind.
The 1967 version of "The Great American Race" was won by Mario Andretti two years before the future Formula One World Champion claimed glory in the other 500-mile race of note – the Indianapolis 500.
In 1972, another famous IndyCar driver picked up the checkered flag when A.J. Foyt became the third different driver to take the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane.
Throughout the '60s and '70s, Richard Petty and David Pearson dominated NASCAR's Grand National Series, which we now know as the Sprint Cup. In a 12-year span, they combined to win nine series championships, and in 1976, the two legendary combatants staged one of sport's great finishes in Daytona.
Leading on the last lap, Petty was passed by Pearson heading down the backstretch and into Turn 3. As was common then and still is today when racing at Daytona, Petty attempted to use the draft to power under Pearson coming off of the final corner and toward the checkered flag.
However, Petty never cleared Pearson's car, and the two champions made contact with one another with each spinning through the grass – just short of the finish line.
Petty's Dodge was finished and he was unable to get his car restarted. Pearson had the presence of mind to keep his foot on the clutch while spinning and, when he came to a stop, he put his car into gear and limped across the finish line. It was his first and last Daytona 500 victory, but it came in a manner no one will ever forget.
To everyone's astonishment, that dramatic finish would be topped just three years later in a race that would forever put NASCAR on the minds of the American public.
In 1979, CBS decided to broadcast the 500 in its entirety. For the first time, NASCAR's top race would be shown flag-to-flag throughout the country. As luck would have it, a blizzard hit the northeast and kept people in their homes watching television.
What viewers saw was a finish where the first- and second-place cars driven by Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough intentionally wrecked one another on the white-flag lap, and Richard Petty come out of nowhere to claim his sixth Daytona 500 victory. Then, in what might be the most famous moment in NASCAR history, Allison and his brother, Bobby, engaged Yarborough physically.
Live on national television.
People who never considered themselves race fans before instantaneously took sides and became ardent supporters of the blossoming sport. It was a moment that forever launched NASCAR to once-unforeseen heights and it will always associated with NASCAR's premiere event.
Bobby Allison won the 500 for the second time in 1982. In a poignant moment that touched on the bond between father and son, he beat his son Davey to the finish line for a third win in 1988.
Yarborough took center stage again in the '80s when he became just the second driver (Richard Petty was the first) to take consecutive trips to the Daytona winner's circle in 1983 and 1984.
Throughout the '80s, Dale Earnhardt came close many times to winning the one race that had always eluded him. With each passing year, however, Earnhardt would find some way not to win.
In 1990, the "Earnhardt Hex" really took on a life of its own.
Dominating all afternoon, it appeared to be a foregone conclusion that "The Intimidator" would finally taste victory at Daytona. Coming off Turn 2 on the final lap, though, the famous black No. 3 car slowed due to a punctured tire. Derrike Cope, a little regarded driver from Spanaway, Wash., swept under Earnhardt and scored the win.
Close runner-up finishes in 1993 and 1995 added further proof that the Daytona 500 was simply not Earnhardt's race to win. However, that all changed on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in 1998.
Out front, as he frequently was at Daytona, Earnhardt led with two laps to go when the caution came out for an accident on the backstretch. Deftly beating Bobby Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield back to the start/finish line, Earnhardt finally secured the one thing which had always slipped out of his grasp and won the Daytona 500.
A celebration worthy of such an achievement then commenced. Every crew member from every team greeted the seven-time champion as he came down pit road.
Just three years later, Earnhardt was involved in another incident no one will ever forget when he tragically lost his life after a head-on crash into the Turn 4 wall.
As Earnhardt's damaged machine came to a rest at the bottom of the track, Michael Waltrip flew underneath the checkered flag to bring home the victory. Waltrip won the race driving a car actually owned by Earnhardt himself.
As low as NASCAR fans felt at that moment, Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed victory in the 2004 edition of the 500 -- six years to the day his father was killed -- and helped do away with some of the sadness that still lingered.
Over the next seven years, the Daytona 500 was won by champions with impressive resumés (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth) as well as unlikely winners (Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray).
The unlikeliest of winners was precocious, 21-year-old Trevor Bayne, who was making just his second career Sprint Cup start when he won in 2011.
There he was, driving for that same venerable Wood Brothers team that had won in 1963, 1968 and 1972 and celebrating like all those who had celebrated before him.
And why shouldn't he?
After all, this is Daytona: the birthplace of NASCAR and where a win means more than anywhere else.
Rain remains in the forecast for today's Daytona 500 qualifying practice, but it is less of a threat to interfere with tonight's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway.
The front that sparked showers Friday and settled just south of Daytona Beach on Friday night will begin to slide back north during the morning and afternoon. This will cause scattered showers to form and could be a problem during Daytona 500 practice in the afternoon.
Later in the evening for the Bud Shootout, the front will move north of Daytona International Speedway. The threat of rain will begin to diminish through the evening and it should be mostly dry, but there could be a few remaining showers that linger from the afternoon.
On Sunday, as a storm system moves through central Georgia, a cold front associated with this system will slide through Florida. Showers and scattered thunderstorms are possible from Sunday from the morning into the afternoon. This looks like the best chance for rain this weekend and really threatens Sunday afternoon's Daytona 500 qualifying.
11:00 a.m to 1 p.m ET
Sprint Cup practice – Mostly cloudy, some sun, chance of a shower– temp: 70-74
2:00 p.m to 3:45 p.m ET
Sprint Cup practice – Clouds, some sunshine, chance of a shower – temp: 73
8:00 p.m ET
Budweiser Shootout – Patchy clouds, mostly dry, slight chance of a shower – temp: near 70
1:00 p.m ET
Daytona 500 qualifying – Mostly cloudy, chance of a scattered shower – temp: 80
Jimmie Johnson is hopeful NASCAR won't react too harshly to the unapproved body modifications discovered on his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports ride on Friday.
The infraction was found during inspection for Daytona 500 qualifying and involved the C-post panels on both sides of Johnson's car. NASCAR said it would consider issuing penalties, but not until after the Daytona 500.
That crew chief Chad Knaus is still at the track -- he was immediately ejected for an infraction in 2006 -- is a sign to Johnson that perhaps the penalties may not be too serious.
"We'll see what the Tuesday after the 500 holds," he said. "... I don't know if I'm reading it incorrectly, but if they were really mad, then Chad wouldn't be here and the car would be impounded. They're letting us work on it. I'm hoping that's a good sign."
Johnson said "a lot of people" were working on aerodynamic advantages throughout the garage area and said NASCAR's technical inspection was in place to keep teams in line.
But he acknowledged, "it certainly isn't the way you want to start the week."
"The fact that we haven't been on track yet is an important thing to remember," he said. "We had to work on our car, and we will. It is not how we wanted to start the week, especially with so much attention being drawn to it. But it's something that won't slow us down and we'll still have a great shot to win the 500."
Martin Truex Jr. was the lucky lottery winner at Friday night's Budweiser Shootout draw party, the event where drivers randomly select their starting spots for the season-opening exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway.
Truex was among the final 10 drivers to pick a spot, but came up big when he guessed which bottle held the No. 1 position flag. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver was visibly elated and celebrated his pole with a fist pump.
Kyle Busch will start second, followed by Brad Keselowski – a Miller-sponsored driver who had someone else pick up his bottle of Bud.
Jamie McMurray and David Ragan round out the top five.
Here's the full starting lineup for the 2012 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona:
As it turns out, NASCAR's changes to try and eliminate the two-car drafts have mostly brought back the big pack.
But with the return of the pack comes the return of the "big one" -- and Friday night's first Budweiser Shootout practice at Daytona International Speedway was no exception.
A five-car crash marred the opening practice of the NASCAR season, a wreck that began when Tony Stewart turned Kurt Busch while trying to push-draft.
When Busch spun down the track, he was hit by brother Kyle Busch and the Penske Racing cars of A.J. Allmendinger and Brad Keselowski, as well as Jeff Gordon.
It appears Keselowski, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch may have to use backup cars for Saturday night's Bud Shootout.
"Some guys in front of me got together, and that's just the way it is," Keselowski said. "... It's a shame [we] got caught up in it, but it's better to do it now than next Sunday [in the Daytona 500]."
The good news for fans is the drafting seems to be "kind of back to the way it used to be," Clint Bowyer said.
Matt Kenseth was fastest in the first practice, topping the charts at 201.762 mph with drafting partner Jeff Burton. David Ragan, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.
The final Bud Shootout practice begins at 6:30 p.m. Eastern.
If the rain stays away from Daytona International Speedway -- and we hope it does -- our first hints on what the 2012 Daytona 500 may look like will come in tonight's Budweiser Shootout practices.
At Thursday's annual NASCAR Media Day, hundreds of reporters asked the Sprint Cup Series drivers to offer insight as to whether two-car tandems would still dominate next Sunday's Daytona 500.
The answer? Lots of shrugs, a few wild guesses and plenty of "I don't know" replies.
As it turns out, the drivers honestly have no clue how the race is going to look. Will they be able to use the two-car drafts for several laps at a time despite NASCAR's rule changes to limit pushing? If not, will they race in a pack or just try to switch more often?
Tonight's practices should begin to give us some hints on how long the drivers can push one another -- which is the key to the entire Daytona 500 makeup.
We're about to find out together.
NASCAR cut off and confiscated sheet metal from the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports car of Jimmie Johnson on Friday, citing unapproved modifications to the C-post area.
The infractions were discovered during inspection for Daytona 500 qualifying, which means there could be possible penalties for the No. 48 team after the Daytona 500.
"We're pretty serious about the body configurations of the cars for all of the right reasons," NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said. "This one was a modification that had been made to the car that put it outside that box."
The unapproved modifications to the C-post, which is a panel of sheet metal that connects the roof of the car and the rear quarterpanel, were found on both sides of the No. 48 car. As is customary practice, the parts were put on display in the NASCAR hauler after being confiscated.
For now, the team is being allowed to repair the car with the proper parts.
"There's always a potential (for penalties), but we'll just wait until the 500 is over with," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition.
(Above photo via Twitter account of @2spotter)
A Hendrick Motorsports official called the incident "a hell of a way to start the 2012 season."
"You work within the templates the best way you think, and obviously you're trying to do a better job than the next guy," said Ken Howes, Hendrick's vice president of competition. "I did not see the grid on the car, so I can't tell exactly where it missed, but NASCAR said it's not right – so it's not right. We don't have an argument with that."
Howes acknowledged the No. 48 team was trying to gain an aerodynamic advantage by tweaking that area of the car and "obviously went too far." Howes hadn't asked Knaus for an explanation yet, he said.
"We allow the crew chiefs to make decisions on parts of the car they think will work," Howes said. "It becomes an opinion, and we're just not going to get in a fight over that sort of thing. We trust that they'll make the right decision and obviously, in this case, they didn't."
The other Hendrick cars – the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon, the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne – all passed inspection and did not have the same issue as the No. 48.
Hendrick is in the process of flying down new C-post panels from its headquarters in North Carolina, Howes said. The parts are expected to arrive in Daytona this evening.
The car that had an issue in inspection is the same one that will be repaired and used for Daytona 500 qualifying practice on Saturday and the qualifying session itself on Sunday, he said.
This wouldn't be the first time Knaus was caught with an unapproved part at Daytona.
In 2006, Knaus was ejected from Daytona Speedweeks and was suspended for the Daytona 500 – and three other races – after Johnson's car failed inspection in the rear window area.
So why wasn't Knaus ejected this time?
"That was a little different, because that was post-(qualifying)," Pemberton said. "That wasn't pre-qualifying."
Last season, Knaus ran into more trouble when he was overheard instructing Johnson to intentionally damage the rear end of the race car if the driver won at Talladega.
Ultimately, Friday's incident may be similar to one that occurred at Sonoma in 2007. At that time, Hendrick crew chiefs Knaus and Steve Letarte were suspended for six weeks and fined $100,000 apiece after trying to gain an advantage in an area not directly covered by NASCAR's templates.
NASCAR's Darby said teams used to be able to get away with working "between the templates," but can no longer do so.
But Howes said there are "areas on the templates (that) don't cover every square inch," and teams work to push the limits in those areas.
Pat Monahan, meet Daytona.
The lead singer of three-time Grammy winning band Train will perform the national anthem prior to next Sunday's running of the Daytona 500, making Daytona two-for-two on non-country acts for race day (rocker Lenny Kravitz was previously announced to do the pre-race concert).
Train, whose hits include "Meet Virginia," "Calling All Angels," "Drops of Jupiter" and "Hey Soul Sister" has a new album coming out in April and includes the single "Drive By," which is already on the radio – and thus, the connection to NASCAR.
Country singer Martina McBride sang the national anthem last year and Harry Connick Jr. did the honors in 2010.
The crop of celebrities for this year's race seems to be a bit on the thin side, though. Aside from Monahan and Kravitz, the grand marshals are Glee's Jane Lynch and Sports Illustrated cover model Kate Upton.
Also announced Friday: Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte will be grand marshal for the first Gatorade Duel race on Thursday.
Throughout Kasey Kahne's career, there have been two constants.
One, as evident by his 12 Cup victories and two appearances in the Chase, is that Kahne is an immensely talented driver. The second is the continued instability that has surrounded him like his own personal black cloud.
In seven full seasons, Kahne has driven for four different owners, three different manufacturers, endured numerous fluxes in ownership and continual concerns whether his team had enough money to go racing each week.
Now entering his eighth year, Kahne will again be driving for a new car owner – Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports – and his fourth different manufacturer – Chevrolet – in as many seasons.
But unlike past years, 2012 isn't going to be another season of uncertainty. Instead, this year will represent something Kahne hasn't had a lot of in his career – stability.
Almost two years after he was tabbed by Rick Hendrick to replace Mark Martin behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet, Kahne is finally going to make his debut for the organization which has brought home 10 of the last 17 Sprint Cup championships.
Now, for the first time ever, Kahne will be wheeling equipment befitting his talent. There will be no more shady, absentee owners who don't pay their bills. Gone are the concerns on whether his team is going to be around the following year.
For Kahne, this opportunity has been a long time coming and now allows him to focus on the thing he does best.
"You just feel really confident," Kahne said Thursday during NASCAR's annual Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. "You know what you have. You know what your owner expects and he can expect it because he gives his employees and all the guys that opportunity to build and prepare cars capable of doing what he expects out of it.
"When you are in that situation as a driver, you just can't not be happy about it."
A big boost to Kahne's fortunes this season is he will be working with longtime crew chief Kenny Francis. The pair has worked together and won races at Evernham Motorsports, Gillett-Evernham Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports and, last year, at Red Bull Racing.
Their success under continually difficult and ever-changing circumstances, along with the resources at their disposal at Hendrick, has raised the bar this season on what to expect out of Kahne.
"For me, I would say a successful year would be consistency and to win races," Kahne said. "We have been close for a little while now. I just feel like we have a really good team. We have the best engines we have ever had. There are a lot of parts and pieces that are going to be there for us and we have a lot of great guys to lean on as well.
"It's going to be an awesome year, but I think consistency, winning races would be great for us right now."
What Kahne is hoping for in his first year with his new team is the same kind of season the guy he's replacing had in his first year driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
In 2009, his first year as Casey Mears' replacement, Martin scored victories at Phoenix, Darlington, Michigan, Chicagoland and New Hampshire, and finished second in the standings to teammate Jimmie Johnson.
There's no reason Kahne can't duplicate that success. In fact, Hendrick expects it.
"I'm going to be really disappointed if we don't have all four cars in the Chase and I'm going to be really disappointed if we don't win the championship," Hendrick said three weeks ago at the Hendrick Motorsports stop during NASCAR Media Tour. "I can't remember having four teams this solid, this strong, at the beginning of the year.
"I think we're as prepared as we've ever been and if we don't get it (the championship) it's going to be our fault."
But instead of downplaying those lofty expectations, Kahne is embracing them and wants to do everything he can to please his new boss.
"It is really exciting to hear Mr. Hendrick talk about what he expects for the season," Kahne said. "We are a part of that now, so we need to step up and show him that we want to make him happy.
"When you go to Hendrick Motorsports, you know you have the car and the engines and all the opportunity to succeed. We just have to be sure that we communicate really well throughout the season and stay on top of it. We will have a great year."
Unfortunately, rain is threatening the Budweiser Shootout practices tonight at Daytona International Speedway.
As a front pushes south during the day today, it will stall across the northern peninsula of Florida. This will allow showers and scattered thunderstorms to form through the afternoon and evening. Seeing rain during that time near or around the track is 50 to 60 percent.
Because we will have to wait for shower development during the afternoon, I cannot say whether or not practice will get canceled – but the likelihood of rain should be factored in if you plan on attending practice Friday evening.
Saturday's Budweiser Shootout looks mainly good because the threat of rain for Daytona International Speedway becomes less and less through the day and evening on Saturday. I only expect scattered showers to isolated storms Saturday night, as a storm system passing to the north lifts the stalled boundary that will trigger rain on Friday.
Although there is a slight chance of a shower on Saturday, it is less likely than Friday. If it were my call to go to the Shootout on Saturday based on this forecast, I would go.
5:00 p.m ET
Budweiser Shootout practice – Mostly cloudy, possible shower, scattered thuderstorm – temp: 72
6:30 p.m ET
Final Budweiser Shootout practice – Mostly cloudy, possible shower, scattered thuderstorm – temp: 69
11:00 a.m to 1 p.m ET
Sprint Cup practice – Partly sunny, scattered shower or storm – temp: 70-75
2:00 p.m to 3:45 p.m ET
Sprint Cup practice – Partly sunny, chance of an isolated shower or storm – temp: 70-75
8:00 p.m ET
Budweiser Shootout – Partly Cloudy, slight chance of a shower – temp: near 70
1:00 p.m ET
Daytona 500 qualifying – Partly sunny – temp: 75
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking forward to the next 10 days in Daytona Beach.
Well, kind of.
While Earnhardt Jr. still enjoys racing at Daytona International Speedway and in the Daytona 500, NASCAR's most popular driver remains frustrated at the lack of control he has on restrictor-plate tracks.
Earnhardt Jr. was once one of the most feared drivers at Daytona and Talladega, a threat to win any plate race. But thanks to repaves and the ensuing two-car tandems, his strength (pack racing) has been completely taken away.
It's no wonder, then, that Earnhardt Jr. repeated his belief that the Daytona 500 is a "lottery."
"Daytona, this is probably the worst odds for me all year because of the way the racing is here," he said. "This is going to be a fun experience, but I'm looking forward to getting to Phoenix and the rest of the tracks to start really getting control of my destiny and trying to make some things happen for me and win some races."
Earnhardt Jr. has gone winless since 2008, so he's obviously itching to return to Victory Lane. And he doesn't feel Daytona gives him the best chance of doing so.
"I look forward to going to tracks where I'm driving the car, where I can make a difference," he said. "I don't know what is going to happen in the Daytona 500; I don't even have a clue what the race is going to be like now, and that's frustrating, but that's just the way it is."
NASCAR has tried to make changes to the so-called "tandem drafting" that developed when drivers figured out they could push each other faster than the big pack could go.
It remains to be seen how those changes worked -- we'll get our first indication in Friday's Budweiser Shootout practice session -- but Earnhardt Jr. is cautiously optimistic.
"To NASCAR's credit, they've been working really hard trying to put it back into the driver's hands and give the drivers control of their destiny instead of pairing up and having to take care of each other out there on the racetrack all the time," he said. "You want to be stubborn and looking out for yourself only, so they are trying to go in that direction."
Ryan Newman was one of the first people to greet Tony Stewart at Homestead after his teammate and Stewart-Haas Racing team owner won the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
When Newman leaned his head into the window of the No. 14 car, he found his friend still stunned over what had just taken place.
"He looked at me and said, 'I still don't believe it. I just don't even know how it happened,'" Newman said Thursday.
But here's the thing: Even now, neither of the SHR drivers can explain how Stewart caught fire in the Chase after being an also-ran in the summer months.
Newman, a Purdue University grad with a degree in engineering, said he's still mystified and "baffled" as to how the No. 14 team suddenly got so hot.
"It's still mind-boggling, the success they had with the troubles they were having," he said. "I don't know. Some things, you don't totally understand."
For those who have been around Newman, that's a bit surprising. The Indiana native is one of NASCAR's smartest drivers and can usually explain just about everything.
But not this time.
Was it just Stewart's willpower that propelled the No. 14 team to a title?
"I don't think it had anything to do with that," Newman said. "I think things just clicked for them. There was no rocket science to it. Part of it is chemistry, part of it is effort, part of it is performance. Call it what you want -- what they did and what they achieved is amazing."
Seriously, though -- there had to be something the team found, right? Come on, Ryan, don't hold out on us. What was it?
"There were no secrets to his success, it was just a matter of dedication and hard work," Newman insisted. "And that's the same with the last five that Jimmie [Johnson] had."
Newman said he knows Stewart wouldn't choose to relive the championship run over again if he could, because of all the turmoil that went on behind the scenes. Stewart made the decision to fire crew chief Darian Grubb before the team went on a winning streak, and both men were still able to work together despite the breakup.
"The things Tony and Darian fought, to be able to fight through that and put personal feelings aside and win a championship -- if you told me that's what I had to do, I don't know that I'd do that with [Newman crew chief] Tony Gibson," Newman said. "It worked. Sometimes, the moons all line up and the stars drop out of the sky."
Even after losing the NASCAR Sprint Cup title to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker last season, Carl Edwards won't be haunted by second-place syndrome.
Edwards, who characterizes himself as a realist, feels he has put the close runner-up finish in its proper place. That doesn't mean, however, that he hasn't spent the offseason chafing to get back to the racetrack.
"It bothered me after the race for a few minutes, but that's not how I try to do things," Edwards told the NASCAR Wire Service during a media day question-and-answer session at Daytona International Speedway. "I go out and do the best I can, but I'm a realist. There's a reality in the world, and the reality is that we finished second. That's just it.
"I didn't really have much trouble with that. What I had trouble with is the waiting for the season, just sitting around ... no racing, no racing, trying to get up in the morning and find constructive things to do. I am ready to go race. I cannot wait to get in that race car."
It's not that Edwards gave the championship away. He finished second in each of the last three races only to see Stewart post two victories and a third. Stewart's win in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway left him tied with Edwards in the standings, with Stewart winning the tiebreaker based on number of victories during the season.
"In all honesty," he said, "if I'm able to put the fierce competitiveness I have aside, it was a neat thing to be a part of, to be a part of that championship race and to be forced to perform that way and do the best we could.
"At the end of the race, I don't know how far Tony and I were ahead of the rest of the field, but it felt like both of us were just on a mission. We raised each others' games. If either one of us is in the hunt for it (this) year going into Homestead, I feel sorry for whoever's racing against us, because I think we both have a really good experience under our belts."
Danica Patrick doesn't think reporters should describe female athletes as "sexy."
The NASCAR driver – and star of racy Go Daddy commercials – wondered aloud on Thursday why the sports media can't come up with a better way to describe attractive women than "sexy," which she believes has a "negative connotation" to it.
"You don't say those things or frame it like that for a guy," she told a large group of reporters during NASCAR's annual Media Day. "But it seems like with female athletes, if they're pretty, (reporters) only know how to describe them in a sexual way.
"And I don't care, but I just wonder why we can't talk about it in a different way. Why can't there be other words for it? Why does there have to be somewhat negatively twisted?"
When a reporter asked Patrick what words she would suggest instead, the driver shrugged.
"You guys are the ones with words," she said. "You guys are the wordsmiths. Just something without the word 'sex' in it."
Jimmie Johnson found out the hard way that sometimes it pays to fix what isn't broken – or at least to try.
It took losing a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship for the first time in six seasons for Johnson to learn that lesson.
"I didn't realize over the five years or six years that we didn't change maybe as much as we needed to, and evolve," Johnson said Thursday, opening the annual NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway with a post-mortem of the 2011 season.
While Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were winning their record five championships, the rest of the Cup garage caught up with what they were doing.
"It's tough to leave a successful road map, and Chad and myself and the team have been very good at trying to reinvent ourselves each year," Johnson said. "But until the streak was broken – now looking back this offseason at what we've been through and trying to rebuild the team and make sure we're looking at everything we can – we've gone to different depths, different levels of focusing on my interaction with the team, how I provide information to the team, what information I'm looking at.
"There's a lot of things that I haven't done in the past, and I felt like I was one of the most in-depth drivers out there. I'm trying to even take that steps further now. Because of the loss, we've been able to dig deeper and look and get away from the road map that we've built and challenge ourselves more."
The need to deepen his skill set as a driver wasn't the only thing Johnson realized after the fact. Not until he was eliminated officially from title contention at the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix did Johnson realize how much pressure the run for a sixth title had placed on his shoulders.
The 2011 season brought more sniping on the radio between Johnson and Knaus than fans were used to hearing from the No. 48 team, but Johnson views that more as an effect than a cause of the problems that beset the team late in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"I think a lot of it was due to trying to keep the streak alive and other pressures we didn't recognize until the championship was gone," Johnson said. "Those pressures had ratcheted things up, and they started to affect the decision-making process.
"You need to be able to vent. You need to be able to blow some steam off, put someone in place, if need be, yell at your crew chief, if need be – they yell at drivers all the time. That stuff needs to happen, but in the end, it wasn't necessarily what was coming out of our mouths. A lot of factors affected the decision-making process."
During the offseason, Johnson needed time to disconnect from the sport. He didn't race in the Grand-Am Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona as he has in the past. Basically, Johnson was a homebody through the holidays.
In January, however, he refocused his attention on racing to an even greater degree than he has in the past.
"I didn't even go to the Super Bowl this year," Johnson said. "I wanted to be home and just enjoy time with my family and just do things that I wanted to do, get stuff done around the house. It sounds kind of hilarious, but there are a lot of things we ignore through the course of the year, especially over the last six years, with what I've been through.
"It was nice to catch up and scratch things off the list from my own personal things, my honey-do list, and also to get closer to racing once we got through the holidays, circling back with Chad and the team, understanding the dynamic at the shop, really evaluating what we did in '11 and how we feel we can do a better job.
"So the real work on '12 started after Jan. 1. I just separated myself. I was nice to just get away, have weekends off, have a normal life, visit with friends and all that. And since New Year's we've been really focused on coming back for '12."
Johnson's primary regret from last season was not losing the title, but the way he lost it. Racing hard against Ryan Newman in the Chase race at Charlotte, he lost control of the No. 48 Chevy and crashed. A week later, in the sixth Chase race at Talladega, he and drafting partner Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced at the back of the field but failed to launch at the end of the race.
Though he wasn't eliminated mathematically until Phoenix, for practical purposes, Johnson's championship run was over at Talladega.
"I'm just upset at the way we lost the championship last year," he acknowledged. "At points within the Chase, we had momentum, and things going our way. When I look back on it, I find that the way in which we lost is the tough thing. I don't want to do that again. If we get beat, we get beat. I just don't want to ... we beat ourselves. And I don't want to do that again."
Most reporters don't think he will. In a recent NASCAR media poll, Johnson was voted the favorite to win the 2012 championship.
"I'm stoked to be selected," Johnson said. "It doesn't, unfortunately, get me the championship. I've still got to go out and earn that. Everybody that covers our sport knows the sport well, and I think they know the 48 well.
"We're highly motivated to get it done in 2012. Now we've got to get out there and get to work."
Mark Martin will race in his 28th Daytona 500 next week and, so far, the future NASCAR Hall of Famer is 0-for-27.
But the Michael Waltrip Racing driver insists being winless in the world's biggest stock car race doesn't get under his skin.
"It doesn't bother me," he said Thursday during NASCAR Media Day. "At all."
Really? How could that be? I was a bit skeptical about Martin's claim, so I blurted out, "I don't believe that."
"It doesn't bother me!" he insisted.
"But why?" I asked.
"Why should it?" he said. "I didn't win it, did I? If I won it and for some reason I didn't get the trophy, that would bother me. But I didn't win it yet."
Martin's philosophy about not winning the Daytona 500 is similar to how he views the lack of a Sprint Cup Series championship in his career (he's finished second in the points five times).
"Gosh, nobody ever told me I was going to be the greatest of all time or anything like that," he said. "I'm darn lucky to have been able to participate in the sport and stumble around a few teams. I'm serious. I'm not owed anything. You earn what you get."
I wasn't totally sold on Martin's comments, though, so I pressed on. Sure, maybe he didn't feel he was owed a Daytona 500 win. But surely, the lack of a 500 victory had to gnaw at him.
"I have not lost one ounce of sleep over not winning it, other than the disappointment of being within three feet of it in '07 (when Martin lost to Kevin Harvick)," he said. "I did lose a little bit of sleep over coming within three feet of it."
Martin reiterated his longtime belief that drivers don't get to choose which races they win; instead, he said, a racer should just appreciate any victory regardless of the venue.
And as for the championship? He came to terms with his lack of a Cup trophy when he left Roush Fenway Racing at the end of 2006 and embarked on a partial schedule with Ginn Racing the following year.
When he found early success at Ginn – nearly winning the 500 and leading the points for a stretch – he still stepped out of the car as planned.
"In '07, when we were leading the points after five races, everybody just like flipped out," he said. "(People said,) 'Don't you want to keep going?'
"I wanted to win the championship when I wanted to win it – when I was young. At that point, I'd already made peace with that. It was not on my agenda."
But in 2009, Martin again found himself in position to win his first title. He had resumed his career with a full-time slate of races for Hendrick Motorsports, but he said "they wanted to win a championship" – meaning it wasn't necessarily his own priority.
"I gave everything that I had (in 2009), but I didn't lose any sleep over it," he said. "It didn't bother me like it did when I was young."
Even when he was young, though – and he just turned 53, so "young" was a few decades ago – Martin said he didn't worry too much about losing close championship battles because he just knew he would win one someday.
But he didn't. And so when he looks at Carl Edwards' two runnerup points finishes, he is somewhat concerned.
"Look out, Carl," he said. "It looks like he's going to win it a lot of times, but..."
His voice trailed off and he considered Edwards' heartbreak from last season's championship Chase.
"At least I didn't tie!" Martin said. "For crying out loud. That's awful!"
So when Martin claims to not let any of the disappointments over not winning a Daytona 500 and championship bother him, he's mostly telling the truth.
But he admits there's "a certain amount of self-preservation" in his thoughts, a way to protect himself from letting it affect him.
"You can let (expectations) tear you apart and let things make you not as successful of a person and not as happy of a person," he said. "You have to manage yourself to some degree."
If Martin wins next Sunday's Daytona 500, many would view it as a happy ending to a legendary career. But if you ask Martin, he's been happy all along.
How silly was NASCAR's annual "silly season" of preseason personnel moves? If judged on timing and duration, it counts as downright hilarious.
What kind of silly season has its first domino fall 22 months before the actual season begins? This one did, with Kasey Kahne deciding to join Hendrick Motorsports' 2012 roster . . on April 14, 2010. The dust didn't clear on major seat-shuffling until AJ Allmendinger landed in Roger Penske's No. 22 Dodge just before Christmas 2011.
The long-running silliness will soon subside when cars finally hit the track leading up to Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway. The annual exhibition may shed light on how the new faces will fit in their new places ahead of the season-opening Daytona 500 (Feb. 26, 1 p.m ET, FOX), but plenty of questions still remain.
Some of the asking will start in earnest Thursday as the media converge for the 13th annual NASCAR Media Day, where approximately 50 drivers across all three national series will meet the press. Many questions are expected to be directed toward Kahne, one of the season's biggest wild-cards.
The only drivers on more of a tear than Kahne during the home stretch of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last season were title contenders Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Kahne could have been content to play out the string as a place-holder driver for the lame-duck Red Bull Racing team, which shut its doors just weeks after the season ended. Instead, he closed out his one-year Red Bull stint with seven top-10 finishes in the last eight races, highlighted by a convincing win at Phoenix International Raceway in the penultimate event of the season.
Momentum may be an abstract concept, but for Kahne, the biggest intangible on his side heading into 2012 is stability. Even though Kahne was a constant at the wheel of a red No. 9 for the first seven seasons of his career, the last four of those were spent in the turbulence of team restructuring as Evernham Motorsports became Gillett Evernham Motorsports, which eventually merged into Richard Petty Motorsports.
With the uncertainty behind him, Kahne enters the season with a four-year deal at one of NASCAR's most powerful teams.
"I have four years here that I know it's going to be stable and be competitive and have great people and a great team around me," said Kahne, who finished last in the 2011 edition of the Shootout. "To be able to be a part of all that is something that I haven't had. It's definitely nice to have it, makes you feel pretty good about where you're at. It's taken time. I've had some really good years in Cup and I've learned a lot from everything, and now I'm just in a really solid situation and need to take full advantage of it."
The 75-lap Shootout (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, FOX) will offer a glimpse into how NASCAR's new aerodynamic package will perform in race conditions and whether the two-car push technique will turn, as expected, into a rarely used tactic. Friday's two practice sessions (5 and 6:30 p.m. ET, SPEED) should reveal more.
What the Shootout won't do is necessarily predict a Daytona 500 champion; no one has swept both events since Dale Jarrett accomplished the feat in 2000.
C'mon. Did you really think Michael Waltrip was going to sit this one out?
Waltrip found a sponsor (Aaron's) and a team (the brand-new Hillman Racing) willing to back his 2012 Daytona 500 efforts on Monday, which the driver/team owner hopes will allow him to make his 75th career start at Daytona International Speedway.
Hillman Racing has never raced in NASCAR before – or anywhere, for that matter – but is owned by former Germain Racing architect Mike Hillman Sr. At the end of last season, Hillman bought the assets of his ex-Truck team and plans to field a full-time entry in the Camping World Truck Series (Ward Burton will race it at Daytona).
Waltrip will drive the new No. 40 Sprint Cup Series car, but will have to make the race via qualifying or by transfer spot in one of the Gatorade Duels.
In other news, Waltrip will also race the Budweiser Shootout in the No. 55 car – which he is splitting with Mark Martin this season at Michael Waltrip Racing – while Martin watches from atop the pit box.
Martin became locked into the Daytona 500 after MWR made an owner points purchase from FAS Lane Racing, SceneDaily.com reported Monday.
The entry list for the 2012 Budweiser Shootout was released on Monday, and it's a bit smaller than the field could have been under the rules.
If you recall, the new qualification rules for the Shootout allowed just about everyone (and their mothers) to be eligible for the race: A total of 33 drivers could have been in Saturday night's exhibition event under the lights at Daytona International Speedway.
But the entry list reveals "only" 25 drivers will field a car. Still, that's a pretty huge field; it's basically like an All-Star Race before the season starts.
Here are the 25 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers who will participate in Saturday's Bud Shootout:
Lenny Kravitz, who once won four straight Grammy awards at the peak of his career, has been selected to perform a pre-race concert prior to the 2012 Daytona 500.
The rocker will play three of his songs – likely something from his newest album, called Black and White America, plus a couple of hits.
Kravitz's selection breaks a string of country music acts that included Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban and Brooks & Dunn over the last several years.
Daytona will still have country, though. The group Little Big Town will perform pre- and post-race concerts on the night of the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race and also sing the national anthem.
The national anthem singer for the Daytona 500 has yet to be named, but the track has already announced the grand marshals (The Three Stooges' co-stars Jane Lynch and Kate Upton) and the honorary starter (WWE wrestler John Cena).
When NASCAR was big – like really big, not just a strong niche sport like it is now – the Daytona 500 attracted some equally big names to be its grand marshals.
Check out this list from 2003-07:
2003 – John Travolta
2004 – President George W. Bush
2005 – Matthew McConaughey
2006 – James Caan
2007 – Nicolas Cage
OK, so aside from James Caan, that's a pretty impressive list. Well, that period in NASCAR history just so happened to be the time when I started paying attention to the sport.
Therefore, I got the impression the Daytona 500 grand marshal was ALWAYS a huge name. I was spoiled. But ever since NASCAR hit the skids with ratings and attendance, that hasn't been the case.
Check out this list of Daytona 500 grand marshals from 2009-2011:
2009 – Florida Gov. Charlie Crist
2010 – Junior Johnson
2011 – Josh Duhamel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Michael Bay
No offense to any of the people above, but they don't have the same star power as the grand marshals did for a few years there.
This year's grand marshals are also a bit underwhelming: Glee's Jane Lynch and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton.
The reason Lynch and Upton are in attendance is they are promoting the April release of 20th Century Fox's The Three Stooges movie. The reason the stooges themselves are "delivering the green flag" to the flagstand and not being grand marshals is the actors are even smaller names: Sean Hayes of Willl & Grace, former Mad TV star Will Sasso and 24's Chris Diamantopoulos.
Anyway, perhaps the Daytona 500 grand marshals are a reflection of NASCAR's place in the world. When it was hot, the sport's premier event attracted some elite names.
Now? Not so much.
NASCAR has cringed whenever fans, media and the occasional driver have mentioned professional wrestling and stock car racing in the same breath.
The sanctioning body seems to hate comparisons to the WWE, since that sport is staged and scripted. NASCAR has spent much time convincing people that it conducts it business on the up-and-up and doesn't try to tweak the outcome of its events in order to create artificial drama.
So it was puzzling, then, that on Monday night's episode of WWE Raw, Carl Edwards drove his car into the arena to invite wrestler John Cena to be the 2012 Daytona 500 honorary starter "on behalf of NASCAR."
Cena is no doubt a superstar in the eyes of WWE fans – many of whom might tune in to the start of the Daytona 500 to watch him wave the green flag.
But to a mainstream sports fan who turns on NASCAR's Super Bowl to give racing a chance, having a WWE wrestler start the race only reinforces the stereotypes some people hold about NASCAR.
Anyway, at least it's not Snooki.
Here's a video of the moment Cena was invited to have one of racing's biggest honors:
Should drivers be allowed to get into the Daytona 500 without earning their spot?
By now, you've likely heard NASCAR is currently conducting a preseason test at Daytona International Speedway. But not everyone may understand the importance of the test, so let's take a moment to explain.
This three-day test for the Sprint Cup Series is absolutely crucial to help NASCAR break up the two-car drafts at restrictor-plate tracks and restore pack racing to the Daytona 500.
"The fans have spoken: 'We don't like tandems!'" team owner Michael Waltrip said in a booming voice. "Well, I don't like it either. (Tandem racing) is harder than normal. ... So let's get 'em unhooked. But here's the challenge: They're so much faster."
One car pushing another car has proven to be far faster than racing in a big pack (which was the traditional Daytona racing style until last season). So as long as drivers can hook up into a two-car draft, they'll do it.
But NASCAR, realizing fans preferred the packs over the pairs, began to take steps to break up the tandem racing. That's what this test is all about.
Can NASCAR take steps to break up the pairings with mechanical adjustments? If so, how? Officials have a couple ideas they're trying at Daytona.
• Smaller radiator. When one car is pushing another, there's very little air flowing to cool the water in the radiator – and thus the car could overheat if it pushes for too long. And if the car overheats, it will lose water and eventually cause the engine to blow up.
NASCAR has mandated smaller radiators and overflow tanks, and also moved the location of the radiator inlet – where the air goes to cool the water – closer to the center of the front bumper (previously, it was easy for the pushing car to duck out of line and get air to the radiator).
• Smaller rear spoiler, larger restrictor plate. If NASCAR can make the drivers less comfortable and increase the speeds to where the cars don't handle as well while pushing, it might help in breaking up the two-car drafts. Daytona International Speedway was repaved before last year's Daytona 500, and the smooth surface feels like driving down a new highway – no bumps, tons of grip. It's almost too easy for the drivers to push each other around the track.
So now for the big question: Will the changes work? No one knows yet, but we'll find out starting this afternoon when the cars start drafting practice.
Waltrip said he's heard cars at the proving grounds tested the rules package and still were able to push for multiple laps. So unless NASCAR tightens the rules even more, drivers may still end up in pairs during the race.
But driver Joey Logano said he didn't believe cars could push long enough during the race to make tandem drafting worthwhile under the new rules and added, "It's going to to be close if we can do it for a lap."
If that's the case, fans might see a pack race for most of the Daytona 500, a scramble for position in the final 10 laps and then pairs racing at the white flag.
Both Waltrip and Logano agreed that no matter what NASCAR does, the finish of the Daytona 500 will still be determined by a two-car draft.
After all, they said, who cares if a driver blows his motor coming to the finish line? The race would be over. And Waltrip said he believes NASCAR is OK with the cars pushing for a lap because it would set up a great finish.
But the semi-retired driver also said fans and media need to figure out what they really want at Daytona.
"What you guys want (pack racing), you had it once – and you didn't like it," Waltrip said. "So what the hell are you writing now? I mean, it's true. We've had the long lines of cars, we've had the big packs (and people said), 'We've got to break up these big packs!'
"Now we have the tandems and it's like, 'That's stupid, we've got to get rid of that!' I get it, but eventually, you're going to have tried and experienced every form of it, and you're going to have to settle on one."
When Greg Zipadelli left Joe Gibbs Racing to become Stewart-Haas Racing's competition director, he speculated the departure would be a blessing in disguise for driver Joey Logano.
After all, Zipadelli's move meant there was one less attachment to Tony Stewart's NASCAR championship tenure in JGR's No. 20 car – and that might just allow Logano to "blossom," Zipadelli said.
"There was an amazing amount of weight on him to try and fill those shoes, and those are shoes that just don't get filled," Zipadelli said at the time. "As long as I was there and my group was there, there was still something about that. ... He's got a great opportunity to prove himself with a completely different level of expectations."
On Wednesday, I asked Logano if he thought Zipadelli's assertion was accurate. Did Logano feel more comfortable with new crew chief Jason Ratcliff?
"I definitely feel like it's my team now," Logano said. "With Jason there, I can voice my opinion and I think we're all really working together very well. We value each other's opinion a lot. What we've done and the accomplishments each other has, we respect that a lot.
"I think it's going to be a very positive change for us – and I think it's going to be a positive change for Zip, too. You know, every once in awhile you've got to kind of hit the reset button and go at it again."
This is a crucial season for Logano to prove he can win and contend at the Sprint Cup level. The 21-year-old finished 24th in the point standings last year after placing 16th in 2010. He must show some improvement in what will be his fourth full-time NASCAR season.
The 2012 Daytona 500 could look a whole lot like the 2011 Daytona 500, if Thursday's electronic fuel injection test at Talladega Superspeedway is any indication.
In other words, the field will likely be split into two-car drafts, as has been the case for each of the restrictor-plate races this season.
But NASCAR hopes that won't be the case. The sanctioning body understands many race fans are less enthusiastic about the tandem racing than when it started, NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said Thursday.
"We are worried (about the quality of the plate racing)," Pemberton said. "But you have to be very careful, because the cure can be way worse than the disease."
Pemberton said he thought the two-car drafting was "OK when it first came on board" in the eyes of NASCAR nation.
"And then, I think, the novelty of that wore off somewhat with some fans," he said. "... We do understand the likelihood of (two-car drafts) gaining popularity is not there."
Some had hoped the new EFI cars being tested at Talladega on Thursday would help to break up the "lovebug racing" – a group that included Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III.
Chitwood recently told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that fans were tired of the two-car drafts and they could expect changes for Daytona Speedweeks. Like Pemberton, Chitwood also called tandem racing "a novelty that has worn off" and cited a Daytona study that showed an increase in fans dissatisfied with the racing at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
But the EFI cars alone certainly didn't change anything. Instead, the two-car drafts looked just as strong as they did with cars powered by engines with carburetors.
Pairings like the combination of Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard ran lap after lap on Thursday without having to switch (which would occur if the pusher started overheating). Other tandems discovered the same.
"The whole deal with the two-car draft comes down to aero," Menard said. "These COT cars punch a huge hole in the air, and until you make the cars slipperier and get a lot less drag in the cars, you're going to continue to see this.
"It has nothing to do with motors, as far as I understand it."
But Pemberton said Thursday's test was "not necessarily" a sign of how the Daytona 500 would go. He noted some teams brought the old (smaller) restrictor plate to the Talladega test and were not running the newly mandated pop-off valve that requires even less water pressure to activate than before (the idea of the pop-off valve being that cars would overheat if they lost water, so it would force drivers to "swap" more often).
Pemberton also said NASCAR was looking at the cooling systems for next year and was considering making a change to something "much different" than is currently used at plate tracks.
So there's hope yet that pack racing could return and two-car drafts could go away. Unfortunately, there's only so much NASCAR can do to break them up.
The two-car drafts were created when drivers realized the grip level at newly repaved Daytona and Talladega would allow them to push a partner for virtually as long as they wanted and break away from the pack.
Now, Pemberton said, every driver knows the technique.
"Once you learn something," he said, "you can't unlearn it."
A couple other things you should know:
• The cars are still using restrictor plates, even though there's no carburetor. The restrictor plate is used to restrict air flow to the engine, so NASCAR believes it's still the best way to slow the cars down. And lower speeds remains a priority for officials, since Cup cars could perhaps approach 230 mph with unrestricted engines at Talladega.
• At Thursday's test, teams used a restrictor plate the same size as the one used at Talladega in the spring race (7/8 inch holes) – which is not the same plate that will be used this weekend. The top speeds remained virtually the same, however.
• Some of the cars practiced a simulated pit stop (getting in and out of their pit boxes). The reason is the power curve on the EFI engines is still a work in progress. At lower RPMs, the engine can have a tendency to skip (it has some problems starting up, for example).
• Teams can no longer grease their bumpers, but drivers are still able to pull halfway out behind another car and get clean air on their nose while racing on the straightaways. The proposition becomes riskier when a pushing car tries to get air in the corner, because there's an increased chance of inadvertently spinning the drafting partner.
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