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Friday, February 6, 2009
Let the madness begin ...

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Saturday night's Bud Shootout will be "more of an adventure" than in the past, says Dale Earnhardt Jr., the defending champion of the bonus race, and the consensus favorite to repeat.

But leave it to Michael Waltrip, who is a sort of savant in restrictor-plate racing, to ask a rhetorical question and then answer in the superlative.

"I'm sure this question is obvious: Is the Shootout maybe the most anticipated race ever? And I'd say yes."

Never before have drivers gone into this inherently wild, non-points sprint race without the benefit of January testing on Daytona International Speedway.

Further, Earnhardt figures he'll lead the drafting packs into uncharted territory "because of the number of cars."

There'll be 28 this time, because new rules allowed manufacturers to nominate their top six drivers each from last year, plus four wild cards.

That's as opposed to Shootout fields that usually numbered in the teens when the rules permitted only pole winners from the previous season.

Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin did the unthinkable by winning the 2006 Bud Shootout as a rookie.

"With 28 cars, they might as well just call it a regular old race," says Denny Hamlin, who rose to stardom overnight when he won the Shootout of 2006 as a rookie.

Because of NASCAR's ban on testing, two Friday practice sessions are all the drivers will have to go on.

"It's going to make it more exciting for the drivers, because we don't know what we've got," Hamlin says. "I think it's going to put it in our hands to go out there with maybe a car that isn't handling just right, because we haven't been able to fine-tune it."

Even more interestingly, Hamlin thinks the biorhythms of each driver have been shaken up -- the ritual of getting into a race car each January postponed.

"I predict that this one will be wilder than you've ever seen, because everyone's so antsy, because they haven't been in a race car. They haven't had time to adjust and get back into the flow of things."

All this, on top of Waltrip's reasoning that the Shootout is, by its nature and the calendar, a highly anticipated race anyway.

"Every year we come to Daytona and people say, 'Can't wait to see what happens in the Shootout,'" says Waltrip. "Got new cars, got new teams, got new something. And we're all gonna throw it out there together for the first time in competition and see who comes out on top.

"Last year, couldn't wait to be a part of it [because the new car was mandatory at Daytona for the first time]. Dale Jr. clicked it off and won. It was a good night.

"But this year, more so, because we haven't had a car roll a lap."

Adding a little cayenne to this cauldron is 18-year-old Joey Logano, the most heralded Sprint Cup rookie since Earnhardt Jr. in 2000, and on Feb. 15 he is scheduled to become the youngest driver ever to start the Daytona 500.

I predict that this one will be wilder than you've ever seen, because everyone's so antsy, because they haven't been in a race car. They haven't had time to adjust and get back into the flow of things.

-- Denny Hamlin

With his lack of experience here, and in plate racing in general, might Logano be turned every which way but loose by the veterans in the swirling drafts, or might he shine, as Hamlin did out of the box in '06?

"Either-or could happen," says Tony Stewart, the driver whose 10-year, 33-win seat Logano will be trying to fill this season in the Home Depot No. 20. Stewart will start the Shootout for the first time as an owner-driver after forming his own team.

"It depends on how comfortable he is, and how that comfort will show with the guys around him [in the draft]," Stewart says. "If he's comfortable and he's got a fast car -- obviously Denny proved that you can win the Shootout in that situation."

"With all the top dogs around me, I should learn a whole bunch," says Logano, who is smiling, even laughing, all the way into one of the most pressure-packed seasons any rookie has ever faced in NASCAR.

"When they told me I was going to be in the Shootout, I was like, 'Great.' It's going to be good for me to get that experience, get out on this racetrack with those guys, maybe get some [drafting] partners for the 500."

Winning friends in the 190-mph drafting lines "depends on how fast his car is," Earnhardt says. "If you've got a really good car, guys have got to go with you, no matter who's driving."

The driver most are sure to go with is Earnhardt, whom they roundly consider the favorite because of his uncanny abilities in the draft.

"Oh, he always has been the guy here," Stewart says. "He's picked up where his father left off among restrictor-plate drivers. He knows the air very well."

"He is able to do things out there that a lot of guys can't," says three-peat Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "He is really amazing with what he does."

"I think I'm the man to beat," Earnhardt says before qualifying that a bit. "I thought I was pretty good at it. More cars in the race is a challenge. It sort of lessens everyone's odds. You've got to put yourself in the right position."

But, "I feel like I know what to do."

Winning the Shootout would be more significant than usual for Stewart, who could get a new team to jell quickly with a win, and for Johnson, who wants to break strong out of the box and launch a bid for a fourth straight championship.

"Of course it would be" bigger than usual, Stewart says. "You move to a different organization, a new group of people, and obviously it makes it that much better."

Stewart never thought testing at Daytona was worth much anyway, but the extra days of practice and racing in the Shootout mean a great deal to him.

"It's two more days that Darian [Grubb, his new crew chief] and I get to spend together before we get to practice on Wednesday [the day practice opens for all entries in the Daytona 500]. So it's really, really big for us. I would much rather trade, and get these two days of Shootout practice and the Shootout versus three days of testing. This has got to be a lot more valuable to us."

Carl Edwards could make an enormous statement for himself in restrictor-plate racing, after devastating his championship chances last fall at Talladega with a bump-drafting mistake that caused a multicar crash.

So how big would a win Saturday night be for Edwards, who's the consensus preseason favorite to break Johnson's string of Cup titles?

"Listen," he says. "Any plate race where I end up with a straight car that's not on the wrecker, it's great for me."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.