Kyle Busch saves the day at Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- We've gone from one freak reality show to another at Daytona International Speedway. Dancing with the Cars has been replaced by Survivor: Slingshot Island.
Left standing on this 2.5-mile concrete oasis in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout was Kyle Busch.
Or 0.013 of a second.
In the closest finish ever in this non-points event in which there were three multicar crashes (nine, six and eight cars), in which Busch had two amazing saves that allowed him to survive to the green-white-checkered finish, NASCAR got the show it was hoping for after making countless changes to the cars to eliminate tandem racing.
That Busch made it to the end of this wreck fest in which only three of the 25 cars weren't damaged reaffirms he is the most talented driver in the sport today -- maybe ever -- without a Sprint Cup title.
"Oh, man!" Busch said. "I don't know how many times I spun out but didn't spin out."
For the record, twice. Or four times in two different situations if you want to get picky.
The first happened on Lap 48 when Busch went low and clipped the front end of Jimmie Johnson's car, saving it three times when on the brink of spinning out of control.
The second came on Lap 74 of the scheduled 75-lap race when Gordon clipped Busch on the left rear bumper to ignite a nine-car crash that concluded with Gordon flipping three times before settling on his roof. Again, Busch went from sideways to a save.
"It was fun to drive when I wasn't getting turned around," Busch said with a laugh and sigh of relief all at the same time. "It was a tough race, but a fun race. I'm glad to see the pack back. It's making it interesting for us drivers."
The return to pack racing also brought a return to the old-fashioned slingshot that once made Daytona unique. Busch hooked up with Tony Stewart in a final-lap dance to separate from the field, then pulled to the outside of the defending Cup champion and crossed the finish line so close you needed a slow-motion camera to determine who won.
But what made the finish such a thrill were the superhuman saves Busch made to be there at the end. Only a handful of drivers in the sport could have done that.
"I was right behind [Busch] when he had the deal in [Turns] 1 and 2 and he had to catch it three times before he saved it," Stewart said. "When you get 3,400 pounds moving like that, to catch it one time was pretty big. To get away from him and catch it a second time was big. The third time was big.
"That's three big moments in one corner. He just never quit driving it. There's a lot of guys that wouldn't have caught that. I'm sitting there and the green is still out. I'm going, 'Man, that's the coolest save I've seen in a long time.'"
That's high praise coming from one of the few other drivers capable of such a maneuver.
"Probably because there was a shower of sparks over his windshield," Busch said, again laughing.
Busch's saves likely won't get most of the attention. Most will talk about the return of pack racing, which fans overwhelmingly told NASCAR they wanted.
There also will be some debate on whether NASCAR should mandate no pushing in the corners or allow some sort of communication between drivers. The First Commandment in this style of racing, we learned, is: Thou shalt not push the car in front on the left rear corner.
We got a sneak preview of that on Lap 8 when there was an eight-car pileup.
"It's going to be chaotic," said Paul Menard, whose car ignited the wreck with a left rear push from David Ragan. "We have to figure out if we want to just ride around or not, because it is a big, big chance you are going to wreck.
"We don't like to wreck."
But even Allmendinger got caught up in the demolition derby near the end.
The good news, as Busch said, is that "it's all in the drivers' hands how boring or how exciting we want to make the race." Or as Stewart so correctly stated, it was "a lot more fun" than tandem racing.
Pack racing definitely fits Busch's style better. With the two-car dancing, it doesn't matter how fast your car is -- you need a partner to win.
When you're as talented as Busch, you don't want to rely on anybody else. This win might have elevated him to favorite for the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.
"It was a great race from my seat," Busch said.
It was wild, as well. Even Busch was impressed.
"The first time might have been luck," he said. "I'm going to say the second was all skill."
He gets no argument from crew chief Dave Rogers.
"Today, I think we eliminated all questions of who deserves credit," he said. "The thing was wrecked twice and he saved it and still drove it to Victory Lane."
Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs can't wait to go back and watch the replay of the saves that will make highlight reels across the country.
"To really appreciate it," Gibbs said, "you have to evaluate it and realize what it was. I would say whoever the driver was that could do that, you just need to appreciate it. Having it be Kyle and our driver was really impressive."
To survive on Slingshot Island, you're probably going to have to make a few saves to win in the qualifying races and 500. Then you're going to have to be willing to push your engine to the limit at the end -- Busch's water temperature was at the boiling point of 300 degrees -- in what inevitably will be a two-car breakaway in the closing laps.
"It's hard to say whether I impressed myself," Busch said. "I wouldn't recommend everybody doing it every day. It certainly got my attention."
Everything about Survivor: Slingshot Island was attention-grabbing, from the spectacular wrecks to the spectacular saves to the spectacular pass at the end.
That Busch was the sole survivor shouldn't come as a surprise.
"Pretty cool," said Stewart, "to see somebody that went through two moments like that come out and win the race."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
2012 Daytona 500
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.