DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The 2008 stock car racing season starts with an extended warm-up lap - tonight's Budweiser Shootout - a nonpoints, exhibition event that quickly turns into a frantic sprint to the checkered flag with its one-of-a-kind 70-lap format.
The race, which draws an invitation-only field made up of the pole position winners from the previous season, plus any former champions of the event, shows a record 23 racers this year.
After starting with a short 20-lap segment, the field pits for a 10-minute intermission, and then blasts off on a 50-lap throttle stomp to the finish, with one pit stop likely along the way.
"Everything about this race is unique, and I think that is what makes it so interesting," said Penske Racing's Kurt Busch, who is on the pole for tonight's event, based on a blind draw conducted on Thursday.
"I think it's a great way to start the season. It's a special field, and only a select group gets to take part. In this kind of format your normal racing strategy goes out the window. You have no idea what might happen."
Mark Martin, with 35 wins and 41 poles in his long career, is one of the most experienced drivers in tonight's field. Martin, who is racing for Dale Earnhardt Inc. this season, drew the second position in the starting grid.
"I drew the number two starting spot because I didn't want to start up front," Martin joked. He has appeared in the most consecutive shootouts (19) and been part of the event 20 times. Only Bill Elliott, who starts 14th tonight, has been in more shootouts. This will be Elliott's 23rd.
"I like starting in the back and passing everybody," Martin said, "but we were just talking about how much different it is from 1982. I just feel like it's a privilege to be in this race."
This is just the third Budweiser Shootout for Denny Hamlin, who said the big winner's purse and the abbreviated format combine to produce just what the race sponsors want - an all-out approach to winning the event.
"We all want to win, and the shootout is unique because you aren't worrying about points or about how it's going to affect your season," Hamlin said.
"You'll probably see guys try things in the shootout that you won't see in the Daytona 500. It's a short race, and the format means that there is nothing to lose at the end. I think that's what the fans like about this race. We just get to go out there and race."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won this race in 2003 and starts in the seventh position tonight, said the shootout is the first real taste of competition after about a three-month layoff.
"Most drivers can't wait to see some action, after the offseason," he said.
Tonight's Budweiser Shootout could quite possibly be the final one for the event that first ran in 1979 as the Busch Clash, and then as the Bud Shootout from 1998-2000.
Coors Brewing has taken over the role as the official beer of NASCAR with a new five-year, $20 million deal, making Coors the sponsor of this season's pole awards. NASCAR has not yet announced whether Coors will also continue the shootout or if it might operate under a separate sponsorship agreement.
The Budweiser Shootout and today's ARCA RE/MAX Series 200 jump-start an eight-day stretch with a diverse racing menu at Daytona International Speedway.
Tomorrow the historic superspeedway hosts the pole qualifying for next Sunday's 50th running of the Daytona 500. The Gatorade Twin 150-mile qualifying races follow on Thursday, the Craftsman Truck Series race on Friday, the Nationwide Series (formerly Busch Series) race on Saturday, followed the next day by the Sprint Cup Series (formerly Nextel Cup) Daytona 500.
ARCA 200: Californian Justin Marks won the pole for today's season-opening ARCA RE/MAX Series race at Daytona International Speedway with a fast lap of 49.632 seconds and an average speed of 181.335 miles per hour.
Marks, who was fifth in the ARCA standings in 2007, was driving a Toyota, as was second-place qualifier Scott Speed, who is moving from Formula One and the open-wheel racing ranks to stock car racing this year. Speed has just one previous ARCA race on his resume, with a seventh place finish at Talladega Superspeedway last year.
Michael Annett qualified third for tonight's race, also in a Toyota.
Defending Indianapolis 500 champion and 2007 IndyCar Series champ Dario Franchitti, who is also jumping from open-wheel racing to stock cars this season, will start ninth in today's ARCA 200.
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