NASCAR kicks off the 2011 Sprint Cup season with the Budweiser Shootout this Saturday, February 12th at Daytona. There are several factors which will make this a preview worth watching and give fans a feeling for what might be in store when the points racing begins in a week. Here are ten predictions for this weekend and what I think the ramifications will be if I am correct.
The Big One - A huge multi-car wreck will be an even bigger factor in this year's Shootout because the racing is going to be closer than it has been in years. With the repaving of the Daytona racing surface, handling is not going to be much of a factor and there will be a bigger temptation for drivers to push the envelope and try to run three wide at times. The pack will also be bunched a lot tighter than it has been in the past at Daytona with handling taken out of the formula.
Surprise Performers - With handling eliminated, luck is going to play a big role in determining the winner of the Shootout. Also, with restrictor plates in place, every car on the track is going to be essentially equal to every other car. Avoiding trouble, keeping the fenders clean and being patient could very well put a driver no one expects to even contend into the winner's circle.
Junior Will Excite - While I'm not ready to predict than Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to contend for the Sprint Cup Championship in 2011, I believe that he is going to perform well enough to get his fan base excited about the possibilities. With the 48/88 pairing of teams in the Hendrick garage, Junior has a new weapon in his arsenal for breaking his slump. If Junior has a strength, it is restrictor plate racing, and the 88 team wants to be strong out of the starting gate for the 2011 season and I think they will be.
Strange Bedfellows - Drafting has been a major factor at Daytona for years. The Shootout will be no different in that respect. But look for unlikely pairings as drivers try to hook up for the move to the front. Teammates from the same garage will probably dominate in the early going, but there will also be times when Fords will be running nose to tail with Chevys, and Dodges will be pushing Fords. The primary goal is winning and drivers will be doing whatever it takes to get to Victory Lane.
Harvick Three-peat - Kevin Harvick has figured out what it takes to win the Shootout, having prevailed the previous two years. Coming off a career high finish in 2010, look for Happy Harvick to be running at the front of the pack when the checkered flag flies. Strategy is an important element in the Budweiser Shootout, and what better way to say "thanks" to his new sponsor?
Fox Sets the Standard - One of the biggest topics of discussion in 2010 was the drop in ratings for NASCAR broadcasts. Debates are still raging around what the reasons are for the drop and will continue for some time. One thing broadcasters have to be aware of is the magnitude of complaints about the quality of race coverage. I think Fox will be working hard to show that they have been listening and will be making changes in how they cover races.
Fans Get Excited - This prediction is pretty easy to make. The biggest outcome of the Bud Shootout for 2011 is that fans are going to become energized for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. With subtle changes to the car designs that make them look more like stock automobiles, a revamping of the points system to make it easier to understand, and sponsor changes equalling new paint schemes on a lot of cars...fan anticipation is high.
The 2010 Sprint Cup Series had some of the best racing NASCAR fans have seen in several years. Many of the foibles of the COT have been overcome, and teams have figured out how to be competitive. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin gave Jimmie Johnson a run for his money for the championship last year and claim to have the momentum to make an even harder charge this year. There are also at least seven or eight other drivers that can contend if momentum from 2010 carries over.
The Budweiser Shootout should give fans a good idea of who is bringing their A-game.