Bud Shootout heralds a new Daytona

The 2011 NASCAR season got off to a good start Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

After watching the first two practices of the year Friday, we were honestly a little afraid we would get two-car breakaways and have a boring show. But even though we had a lot of two-car tandems during the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night, they still stayed in an awfully big pack.

But when you look, even with three cautions slowing the race during the second segment of the race, the number of lead changes was astounding. Not only did we have a record number of lead changes in the Shootout, but our statisticians told us during the race that there were more lead changes Saturday night than there have been in 25 Daytona 500s in history. That says a lot about the new surface we have at Daytona, the way these cars are right now, the drivers’ desire to get up front and stay there and try to win the race.

This is a new Daytona. We’ll see more things unfold through the rest of the week. We get back into some more race practice Wednesday and then the Gatorade Duel qualifying races Thursday — which are always exciting.

And to know that we will go almost three times the amount of racing next Sunday in the Daytona 500 than we had Saturday night has us all licking our chops. The newly repaved Daytona has so much grip — and I don’t anticipate that it will go away during these Speedweeks — that it makes everyone feel good about their cars. And in some cases, as we saw during the second segment of the Shootout, maybe people felt a little too confident or too good about what they could do and how they could go about things.

I think what made the two-car tandems that were so widespread in the Shootout good is that it’s not just two cars hooking up and driving away — it’s several packs of two cars racing together. I looked one time, and there were six packs of two, but they were all right there within a half second of one another, sometimes bringing it up to three-wide and sometimes four deep. Yeah, I think it’s good racing — the lead changes that we had speak for the kind of racing we’ve got right now.

One last thing

A lot of people today will be asking, “Did NASCAR make the right call penalizing Denny Hamlin on the last lap and costing him the win?”

Absolutely, the officials got it right. It’s been well-documented — whether it’s on Lap 1 or coming to the checkered flag — that if you go below the double yellow line to advance your position on the last lap you are placed as the last car on the lead lap. If you do that any other time, it is a drive-through penalty (which essentially is the same penalty). Remember, the same thing happened to Regan Smith at Talladega Superspeedway in the fall race of 2008.

Ryan Newman opened that door just enough to entice Hamlin to drive it in there. But Hamlin said in his postrace interview that he couldn’t see driving it into the rear of Newman’s car for a win in the Budweiser Shootout coming through the tri-oval, which you respect him for not doing.

What was impressive is that Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch, even though they drive for different teams and different manufacturers, had a plan and they stuck to it. In fact, Newman helped their plan by opening the bottom a little bit and mixing the deal with him and Hamlin, allowing Busch to get his first restrictor plate win.