- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
- 0 Shares
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A piece of work named Monte Roberts sired the concept of short-track-type sprints on a superspeedway. Thirty-three years on, sometimes the event now known as the Bud Shootout has lived up to Roberts' titanic touting of 1979, and a lot of times it hasn't.
Saturday night's 34th running, won by Kyle Busch by a nose after a magnificent save earlier in the race, at long last was what Roberts was looking for the first time.
Roberts, then with Anheuser-Busch, dubbed his race the Busch Clash. His enthusiasm was fueled by an ever-present can of "product" in his hand. (Let's just say marketing moguls weren't nearly as uptight around NASCAR then as now.)
But that first Clash was a buzz-killer. As drivers rode round and round in a drafting freight train with barely a shuffle of positions, somebody wisecracked in the press box, "Monte Roberts just threw a beer can onto the track!"
That was the customary gesture of fan disgust with an event in those days. (They didn't even get ejected from the track for it.)
Since then, most of these Speedweeks-opening sprints have sort of run together to me. They go off so fast and have been so manipulated in their structure, that they've rarely been memorable.
This one may stick. It was an especially good show for those who like the massive wrecking that comes with pack drafting.
Which a lot of fans do. They demanded an end to tandem racing for a return to the big freight trains that lead to the "big one" -- or in the case of Saturday night, three big multicar pileups.
Jeff Gordon seemed especially fascinated by the goings-on -- "first time I've been upside down in 15 or 20 years," he said after tumbling off Turn 4 in the last big wreck of the night.
So this one takes its place among the memorable
Dale Earnhardt did some showing off in his time, but the 1991 Clash here just might have been his masterpiece at hot-dogging. He blew away the field in the first segment, and then they reversed the running order and he blew up through the field again and so on
Next day, there was a luncheon in the Goodyear Tower near the garage area. I was standing at the bar with Earnhardt's car owner, Richard Childress, when here came NASCAR czar Bill France Jr., fiery eyed.
"Oh, hell," Childress murmured to me as France walked up. Then Childress stuck out his hand and said, "How you doin', Bill?"
"I was fine until your man threw me in the grease," France said, growing more livid. "I got every god---- Ford owner in the garage on my ass thanks to that little show."
They were howling that Chevrolet had a clear advantage.
"But, Bill," I chimed in, trying to help Childress out. "That was just Earnhardt working the draft. Never seen anybody work the air that well in a race here."
France gave me, then Childress, then me again what I always called his owl-eyed look. His eyes grew wide when he was about to lay the law down.
"Bull----," he said to me. "That was horsepower."
He looked at Childress again, then turned on his heels and left. His message was clear and final: Stop showing off in what amounted to an exhibition race. People took the performance too much as an indicator for the rest of Speedweeks.
It has seldom worked out that way, of course. Indeed, only five times has the Clash/Shootout winner gone on to win the 500 -- Bobby Allison in 1982, Bill Elliott in '87, Jeff Gordon in '97 and Dale Jarrett in '96 and 2000.
Six times Earnhardt won the Clash/Shootout, still the most of any driver, but not once did a sprint win translate to a Daytona 500 victory. Only in 1998, when Rusty Wallace won the Shootout, did Earnhardt win the 500.
The most refreshing Shootout was in 2006, when a rookie named Denny Hamlin, who previously had shown only flashes of promise, dominated and won. But again it didn't translate: Jimmie Johnson won the 500.
The most resounding Shootout was in 2007 -- not for the racing but for the aftershocks. Tony Stewart won it for the third time and came into the media center seething over the highly aggressive bump-drafting, predicting that "we're going to kill each other" before that Speedweeks was over.
Bump-drafting and its risks became the No. 1 topic of discussion from the NASCAR hauler to the media center for the rest of Speedweeks, and even resonated into ensuing years here.
The biggest false hope was raised in 2008 when Dale Earnhardt Jr., right out of the box in his new ride with Hendrick Motorsports, won the Shootout. Surely, it seemed at the giddy moment, this pairing was off and running toward new heights for Junior.
Yeah, well we all know how it's gone since then. Earnhardt won at Michigan that summer but hasn't won since. (He did lead a dozen laps of the Shootout on Saturday night before being knocked out in the second big wreck.)
All in all, Monte Roberts' beer bust has turned out to be a pretty good preview of how the drafting will work in any given Speedweeks. And the format led to the structuring of NASCAR's All-Star race, which began as The Winston in 1985.
As for the wild show he envisioned, it never has quite lived up to its billing as either a Clash or a Shootout.
Until Saturday night.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.