Kyle Busch's car looked more like a short-track car that had gone through 500 laps at Martinsville Speedway rather than a restrictor-plate one set up for a 75-lap sprint race at Daytona International Speedway, but at the end of the 2012 Budweiser Shootout, Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing were in Victory Lane.
Not once, but twice did Busch catch spins between the banking and apron in the corners, and avoid significant damage to his No. 18 M&M's-sponsored Toyota Camry during what was otherwise a wreck-strewn event. A green-white-checkered restart after the scheduled 75-lap distance expired saw Busch in back in the pack, but meandering his way to hook up with Tony Stewart's car. Coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap, Busch went high to slingshot past for the win by a scant 0.013sec.
“I don't know how many times I spun out but didn't spin out,” Busch said. “It was fun to drive when I wasn't getting turned around. I was glad to see the pack back, and I hope it was as much fun for fans. It's great to win the first race back in the M&M's car.
“Somebody was in front of the 39 (Ryan Newman) and I pulled low and got behind Stewart, as he had a fast car,” he added about how he drafted into contention. “At that point, it was a two-guy race, I figured it'll either be me or him. I'm glad it was the M&Ms car.”
Busch succeeded with a backup car after being involved in a five-car accident on Friday.
Although the race was short, three of the dreaded “big ones” took place, leaving Daytona as much a place for souvenirs of torn sheet metal as a racetrack for the 25-car field. The race featured a return to pack racing, brought out by off-season rules changes (notably a smaller spoiler and a change in the radiator designed to increase the likelihood of engine overheating), to combat the frequency of the two-car tandems.
The first took place on lap 9, when David Ragan (Front Row Motorsports) tapped Paul Menard between Turns 1 and 2. That sent Menard spinning and also took involved six other cars: Matt Kenseth, Michael Waltrip, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin. Jeff Gordon sneaked through, narrowly avoiding disaster, although he wasn't immune either later in the race.
On lap 55, Shootout debutante Marcos Ambrose triggered the second “big one” of the evening, as he tapped Joey Logano again between Turns 1 and 2. That one took out Kenseth, officially, along with Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. Harvick's car was on fire, and undeterred, he drove his car back to the pits in spite of it.
“I knew I was on fire, but I just figured it would go out,” Harvick quipped. Meanwhile, Logano explained what happened to him at the head of the accident.
“It depends where and how hard you get hit in the left rear,” Logano said. “The second hit turned me around.”
The field was dwindling and on lap 74, the trifecta of major accidents took place. This one started when Gordon hit Busch exiting Turn 4. Busch corrected his car and saved it before spinning into the infield and making slight contact with the infield wall, but he was the fortunate one by contrast. As Gordon went up the road, he contacted Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson, who were just trailing, and Gordon's car began to somersault down the track in a series of flips. It marked the first time in his career he'd ever been upside-down, and as his car came to a rest in that state, it was flipped back over before he exited. Unharmed, Gordon explained what happened.
“It was getting down to the end of the race,” Gordon said. “Once Kyle got in front of me, I tried to keep Jimmie there. I thought he'd wreck, so I went wide without knowing there was someone on the outside.
“The difference now (versus last year) is, we're still bump drafting, but we're not doing it for as long, so we're doing it in packs,” he added. “Once the tires have heat, and now that we have less downforce, cars are moving around a lot. It's gonna take some patience to master.”
Stewart, who was one of only three cars who wasn't caught up in an accident (along with Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle) at some stage, learned enough to help for next week's Daytona 500. The defending Sprint Cup champion hasn't yet won the sport's pinnacle race.
Ambrose was third ahead of Keselowski and Hamlin. Biffle, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Montoya completed the top 10 finishers in the non-points event.
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 takes place Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, with teams in this race switching over to their Daytona 500 cars.