Second means nothing in the Shootout

On February 12, 2005, the 27th running of the Budweiser Shootout will take place, signaling the non-official start of another high-powered NASCAR season. The event will again be held at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway and feature Bud...

On February 12, 2005, the 27th running of the Budweiser Shootout will take place, signaling the non-official start of another high-powered NASCAR season. The event will again be held at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway and feature Bud Pole winners from the previous year, along with past winners of the event.

Although the NASCAR Nextel Cup's Daytona 500 is officially the first race of 2005, the Shootout is the anticipated precursor, a non-points (yet competitive) event that gathers together Cup stars for a night of no-holds barred racing. It remains a significant date on the NASCAR calendar, as it heralds the start of a new season and provides some cheer before the serious business of a grueling 36-race schedule begins in earnest with Daytona.

"The Shootout is always a fun race and it is really an event for the fans," said Dale Jarrett, one of only two drivers to win the event at least three times (1996, 2000, 2004). "It's just about winning. It doesn't matter where else you finish in this race."

Formerly named the Busch Clash, the Budweiser Shootout has been part of NASCAR for over a quarter of a century. Over the years, the event's format has changed, yet the desire to win it has not. Even though the drivers receive no points for the race, to be victorious in the Shootout is to be on a short, select list of NASCAR stars.

"I've always thought the Bud Shootout was a great way to start the season off," said 1999 winner Mark Martin, who will be making his record 17th consecutive start in the event this year. "It's one of those rare races where second place means nothing, and you just have to go out there and put everything on the line to win the thing."

From the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who won the event a record six times, to his superstar son Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the Shootout is a who's who of driving excellence, and to pull into victory lane at the end can sometimes mean being the last driver standing.

"There's so much going on in your mind," said Earnhardt, Jr. after his victory two years ago. "You're trying to watch who's running up on top and who's running on bottom and you're trying to get help from them guys to get pushed."

This year's Shootout field will consist of 20 drivers; two fewer than the record 22 who competed in 2002. To determine the starting grid, eligible drivers draw numbers on the Thursday preceding the race. Drawing order is based on the number of Bud Poles won the previous year, followed by next-best starts (if there are ties), and then past champions of the event. This year, Ryan Newman, who earned eight Bud Pole awards in 2004, will draw first, followed by four-time Cup Champion Jeff Gordon (with six), and so on.

Ironically, while it's advantageous to start at the front of the pack in any race, those starting from the back of the Shootout should never be discounted, particularly in a race such as this. Recall that last year, winner Dale Jarrett started closer to the back than the front at 15th, and in 2003, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. charged from last place (19th) to cross the finish line first, with runner-up Jeff Gordon starting just one better at 18th. So, don't be blue if your driver happens to draw poorly.

The format of the 70-lap race will consist of two segments: the first a 20-lap dash, followed by an intermission of pit stops before ending with a 50-lap segment that must have a green-white-checkered finish. Because of this condition, the race can exceed 70 laps, but here's hoping that no cautions will fly in 2005 -- though all of the drivers will be racing especially hard at the end.

"Last year some of the guys ended up in the fence, and some of the others crashed their cars up a little bit," noted Earnhardt, Jr. "I guess it's my job to make sure we're not one of them."

A sentiment no doubt shared by his fellow drivers as well.

Who will emerge as "fastest of the fast"? Who will win the lion's share of the event's $1 million-plus purse? It's anyone's guess really. Part of the event's charm is its ability to surprise, and as two-time winner Jeff Gordon has said: "Anything is possible in the Budweiser Shootout."

And that's what makes it fun.

Notes to Ponder:

Reigning Cup Champion Kurt Busch qualified with the last pole of the season at Homestead... No longer rookies, Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers will be drawing third and fourth respectively based on their 2004 starting positions... Two-time winner Tony Stewart will race Chassis No. 73 this year, which debuted in the 2003 Budweiser Shootout... 1987 winner Bill Elliott will be making his record 20th start... In 2003, the Shootout was raced under the lights (and stars) for the first time ever. This year, it will be broadcast once again in primetime on Fox, the same station for Super Bowl XXXIX and the Daytona 500... The band Three Doors Down will perform their latest single "Let Me Go" and lead singer Brad Arnold will sing the National Anthem... Race coverage will begin at 8pm EST.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Tony Stewart , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Kasey Kahne , Brian Vickers , Mark Martin