DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout was more than an exhibition race. It was a battle of survival.
And when it comes to driving through calamity, nobody has proven to be better than Kyle Busch.
Busch pushed Tony Stewart ahead on the final lap, and from there he won a drag race by less than three inches in one of the most-dramatic races at the Daytona International Speedway.
“Amazing race,” Busch said. “It was fun to drive when I wasn’t getting turned around.”
Busch spun off track with 20 laps to go, but the saved his No. 18 Toyota and actually drove back onto the track in 12th position. He was involved in a big crash coming to the white flag, but he missed most of the damage.
And once he made it a two-car race in overtime, his relentless drive to the checkered flag even impressed a lot of his critics.
“I knew he was going to pull out,” Stewart said. “At least he got us up there where we needed to be. He did a good a job. He did exactly what he needed to do.”
Just four of 25 cars in the race finished without damage. Busch’s car wasn’t one.
“I pulled low and got behind Stewart,” Busch said. “We motored right up there. It was a two-man race. It was going to be either me or him.”
Marcos Ambrose wound up third, followed by Brad Keselowski in fourth and Denny Hamlin in fifth.
The race was open to the top 25 race teams from the 2011 season, as well as former Shootout, Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winners. Most considered the 75-lap exhibition race as a high-speed dress rehearsal for next Sunday’s Daytona 500.
If so, don’t expect a lot of two-car tandems.
Or a clean race.
With the return of pack racing came the threat of a huge crash. David Ragan bumped Paul Menard entering the first turn on the ninth lap, and that triggered a 10-car pileup that also involved Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Michael Waltrip and Jeff Gordon.
“Everyone was a little racy to begin with and I got into the back of Menard,” Ragan said. “When you’re in the middle of two cars, three cars, it’s not very favorable. It’s a little too close.”
The race had segments of 25- and 50-laps with a 10-minute intermission. Jamie McMurray was out front after 25 laps, followed by Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Marcos Ambrose.
Six laps into the second segment, Martin Truex Jr. bumped Clint Bowyer into the infield grass.
Another big crash came on the 55th lap when Ambrose got into Joey Logano in the first turn. That crash also ended the night for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth, Harvick and Truex.
“You just can’t hit guys on the left-rear,” Harvick said. “The biggest problem is the tandem racing was so easy for these guys to hook up. Some of these guys haven’t done any pack racing.
“It’s going to take a lot more patience from guys who haven’t done this before.”
And it wasn’t over. Gordon gave Kyle Busch a bump in the fourth turn coming to the white flag, and that sent Busch into the outside wall. Cars driven by Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, McMurray and A.J. Allmendinger were involved, with Gordon’s car barrel-rolling into the tri-oval and landing on its roof. Gordon eventually climbed out without any injuries.
That left just a handful of cars without damage for a two-lap, green-white-checkered sprint in overtime
None of the 25 teams in the race planned to use their Shootout car in next week’s Daytona 500, the first official race of the NASCAR season. Everyone will have a different car for Daytona 500 pole qualifying today at 1 p.m. ET.
Kyle Busch’s winning car was supposed to be a backup for the Daytona 500.
“I think it’s been through enough,” he said. “We’ll send this one home.”
Along with the trophy.