Finally, the thrill is back at Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The pack is back. All the thrills, all the drama, all the hold-on-to-your-seat moments are back. And so is the danger, along with the horror.
You can't have one without the other. You have to take the bad with the good. Is one worth the other?
No doubt about it -- it was pretty darn exciting. Heck, it was breathtaking.
The on-track action was a lot like the old days at Daytona -- cars running together at 200 mph, sometimes three wide and usually only inches apart. Pairs racing was limited, although it still took a Stewart-Busch tandem at the end to get to the front.
And with those heart-stopping, big pack-rattling laps came the consequences -- the inevitable big wrecks, restrictor plate-style Russian roulette on a racetrack.
Is that an acceptable trade-off? Was it worth it when you watched Jeff Gordon go head-on into the wall before flipping over and barrel-rolling down the backstretch, the 24 Chevy eventually stopping on its roof?
Was it worth it for three multicar crashes (nine cars in the first one, five in the second and eight in the last one) in the first 73 laps?
Judging by the drivers' comments, it was worth it.
"I had fun racing at Daytona tonight and I haven't had that in a long while," Stewart said. "I'm really pleased with NASCAR and the changes they made."
"I had a blast out there," said Kurt Busch, even though his car was totaled in the last crash. "It was a lot of fun."
In years past, in a race with so many crashes and damaged cars, drivers would complain heartily about how bad pack racing was and how it needed to change.
Not this time. Why not?
"Do you have any better ideas?" Stewart asked. "Everybody is open to make [it] better. This is better than sitting and staring at the back of a spoiler [in pairs racing] for 500 miles.
"Look, it's a yard sale every time we go to a restrictor-plate track. But this way we have more control."
For Stewart and most of the other drivers, it was worth it.
"It was wild and crazy, but I was having a blast out there," Gordon said.
And judging by our informal poll on the ESPN.com race chat, the trade-off is worth it to the fans. A whopping 85 percent said this was better than pairs racing.
Most of the fans, the ones who complained vigorously about pairs racing, got what they wanted. NASCAR changed the rules and modified the cars to eliminate most of the tandem racing. It worked.
Drivers couldn't break away in pairs without overheating in a matter of seconds. The smaller rear spoiler made it difficult to stay on the bumper of the car in front without the lead car getting loose and starting to slide or spin.
Any time the trailing car bumped the left rear of the car in front, the lead car went sideways and the big wreck was on.
"It was crazy race for sure," said Marcos Ambrose, who finished third. "I saw every crash and managed to just dodge them.
"But it was an incredible job by NASCAR, and all the drivers appreciate it. It was more entertaining for the fans, and we had more control, even though we wrecked more."
That sounds a little contradictory; however, this was an exhibition race that always is a little wild. Racing in the 200-lap Daytona 500 tends to be much more cautious because so much is on the line.
"This always is a race where you see what you can get away with and try and learn something to take into the 500," Stewart said. "In the Bud Shootout everybody pushed the envelope to see what the boundary is."
And come the final laps of the Daytona 500, everyone will push the envelope, once again, in a big pack.
The rule changes worked. Pack racing is back, possibly a scarier version of it than Daytona has seen in the past. And once again, the dangers looms.
Was it worth it?
"Dude, work with me," Stewart said when asked that question again. "I'm just happier."
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 email@example.com.
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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.