Shootout at Daytona won't disappoint
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Now what would Daytona be without a little "cheating" right off the bat?
The Sprint Cup cars didn't even get on the track Friday before the master manipulator -- crew chief Chad Knaus -- got caught crossing the line with Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevy.
Johnson's Daytona 500 car didn't pass the initial inspection because of a C-post that put the rear quarter panel outside the body tolerances NASCAR allows.
Penalties are coming, maybe even a suspension, for repeat offender Knaus. But maybe not until after the 500 next weekend. Knaus sat out the 2006 Daytona 500, the first race of a four-race suspension, when Johnson won it.
There's a lot to lose this time for "Five-Time" Jimmie, who hopes to return to the top and win a sixth title this year. We'll see what transpires.
For now, JJ will race without restrictions Saturday night in the Budweiser Shootout.
Racing is better when drivers have nothing to lose. Every race has a few guys who fall into that category, but it's usually drivers with no chance of winning.
That isn't the case in the Shootout. Every driver is going for broke, which makes the annual 75-lap show a must-see event.
No championship points are on the line, so there's no reason to play it safe. It's all about money and a little glory, grabbing the media spotlight in the first event of the NASCAR season.
"I've never had the chance to go out and do this kind of racing with no points on the line," said Brad Keselowski, who is racing in the Shootout for the first time. "It's going to be a great show, I can promise you that. We've got a lot of cars in the race and it could end up looking more like an old Duel race, back before the top-35 cars were locked in. That would be cool."
Almost everybody who's anybody is in the race this time. Changes to the eligibility rules this year allowed everyone to race except Jocko Flocko.
For those who don't know, that's a monkey, long-since deceased, but a creature that will forever live in NASCAR lore as the primate that raced a few times as Tim Flock's copilot. Jocko was a winner with Flock 59 years ago at Hickory Motor Speedway.
That happened long before Daytona International Speedway was built, but Tony Stewart always has said a monkey could drive the car in Daytona qualifying.
Twenty-five drivers, all Homo sapiens for the most part, will race in the Shootout. Rather than telling you who's in, it's easier to tell you who's out.
No Danica Patrick. It's hard to bend the rules enough to get in a driver who never has raced in a Cup event, although Patrick does have a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500 for her Cup debut.
And no Trevor Bayne, the defending Daytona 500 winner. Bayne qualified, but the Wood Brothers team felt it wasn't worth the added expense of bringing extra cars to race in the Shootout and it wasn't worth the risk of wrecking a car they might need for the 500.
Most of the drivers fans want to see are in the race. And you'll see them at their best, or least see their most aggressive style of driving. No sandbagging in this one.
"Nobody is going to hold back," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday. "Nobody is going to put anything in their pocket and save it. We're all pretty ignorant out there, we want to win."
This Shootout also should give fans an idea of how much the new rules package on the cars has affected tandem racing. These guys will want to see just how long they can hook up and race in pairs.
"I don't foresee you being able to push for longer than two laps without overheating," Kyle Busch said Thursday. "So I am curious to see is how long guys can push coming down toward the end of the race. How many laps is somebody going to push and just not lift until something blows?"
Saturday night is the first chance under race conditions to experiment and push the envelope. And it's an opportunity for fans to get a glimpse at what might happen at the end of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.
In theory, a few drivers and crew chiefs could elect not to show their hand in the Shootout and save it for the 500. It won't happen.
"Too much ego involved," Earnhardt said. "You get out there and you want to win. Everybody's watching. It's a show."
The excitement of the Shootout gives way to the monotony of pole day Sunday, the antithesis of what fans will see Saturday. For the most part, Daytona pole day is long and painfully boring.
One tiny car at a time on the gigantic 2.5-mile oval making two laps flat-out. It takes one full lap just to get up to speed with the restrictor plate. Trust me, 190 mph never looked so slow.
The only small amount of drama is seeing which two drivers get to start on Row 1 for the 500. Only the front row has locked-in spots on Sunday.
However, if the front row is Earnhardt and Patrick, people on the East Coast in Florida might feel a seismic shift in the sand.
"I think she'll have a strong showing here," Jimmie Johnson said about Patrick. "I think it is smart for her to run the 500. She did a great job in the Nationwide Series race [finishing 14th at Daytona in 2011], so being able to come back and build off of that is important."
With the top-35 rule, locking in 35 cars based on owner's points, qualifying doesn't mean a lot in any race. It means even less on qualifying day at Daytona.
Basically, 14 drivers are vying for the final eight spots in the field, most of which are decided in the two qualifying races on Thursday.
NASCAR officials have indicated the top-35 rule may go away in 2013, which would make Daytona pole day and the qualifying races a lot more interesting.
For now, enjoy the wild and crazy Shootout Saturday night and hope your favorite driver has a pole run Sunday. And for the Johnson fans, hope his crew chief gets to stick around.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The 54th running of the Daytona 500 is in the books. What started as a new season of hope for all ended its first chapter with one of the most memorable events in NASCAR history.