By Pete Pistone
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The pack is back.
And so were the wrecks.
Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout saw the return of pack racing that had been the norm at restrictor plate tracks like Daytona until the advent of the two car tandem, a style NASCAR claims a majority of fans detested.
So after spending the entire off-season trying to find a solution to break up the "love bug" racing including larger restrictor plates, smaller spoilers and cooling system changes, NASCAR hoped the old school packs would return.
They got their wish but it came with a major price in a 75-lap race that saw only a handful of cars finish without damage.
The Shootout is an "all-star" race but there weren't many stars still shining when the checkered flag finally flew over Kyle Busch's electrifying win over Tony Stewart.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick were just a few of the names who saw their nights end in the garage with battered race cars.
“Yeah, I think this is pretty much exactly like it was before the two-car tandem," said Kenseth. "This is kind of like what pack racing is, except we’re going quite a bit faster. The car has quite a bit of grip and we’re going really fast, the closing rate is really fast, so it’s about what I expected.”
Gordon, who led late in the going, was involved in one of the night's more spectacular crashes that sent him rolling down the front straightaway several times before finally ending up on his roof.
"I think that's the first time I've ever been upside down in twenty years," said Gordon. "It was wild and I can't say what we saw out there was completely unexpected. There was a lot of aggression and a lot of wild driving out there which is to be expected on a night like this when we have no points to deal with and just the goal of winning on our minds."
But despite the multitude of accidents that punctuated the night, the consensus from the garage was a positive one from drivers.
"It was definitely a lot more fun and you felt a lot more eager to be engaged in the race this way than in the two-car deal," said Stewart. "I actually had fun racing at Daytona again which I haven't had for a while, so I'm really, really appreciative to the work that NASCAR has done in the off-season and the test session and even after the test of the changes that they made to try to make it better for us out there.
"I don't know what the consensus is from everybody else, but I had more fun as a driver tonight than what we've had in the past."
Third place finisher Marcos Ambrose was also on board with being a fan of the return to the more traditional pack racing.
"I agree with Tony, what an incredible job NASCAR has done to get back to this style of racing," he said. "I think all the drivers appreciate it and it’s definitely a lot more fun. It’s more entertaining for the fans and more in control for the drivers. Even though we crashed more tonight, you just feel like you’re in control of your own destiny a little more out there."
Even those drivers who didn't have positive results like Stewart or Ambrose were upbeat about the competition and also cognizant of the fact the exhibition Shootout is far from a points race, particularly next week's Daytona 500.
"This is the Bud Shootout," said pole sitter Martin Truex Jr., a victim of the race's carnage. "So the guys are gonna take a lot more chances than they will on Sunday. The racing was fund and it was a good show. I enjoyed myself."
So the competitors are for the most part happy. But what about the fans, the same ones NASCAR says to the tune of eighty percent "extremely disliked" the two car tandem based on surveys and fan councils?
Whether the high speed demolition derby that was a by product of Saturday night's pack racing is an accepted replacement for the two car drafting phenomenon is now the question to be answered.
NASCAR is listening…..intently.
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