DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s been rebranded from the Shootout to the Unlimited to the Clash, and it’s undergone myriad format changes.
One thing has remained unchanged over the past 14 years – the season-opening exhibition at Daytona International Speedway has been scheduled for Saturday night.
The run happens to coincide with the first February trip to Daytona for this writer.
So to mark covering my 15th consecutive Speedweeks, here are my rankings of the five best editions of the Clash since the race moved under the lights in 2003:
5. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 7, 2004: Dale Jarrett led only the final lap, and his Robert Yates Racing Ford won mostly because he had been a longtime friend and mentor to Dale Earnhardt Jr. … and often gave him a lift in his helicopter.
No, seriously. Jarrett is a three-time Daytona 500 winner who is among the most accomplished and adept restrictor-plate racers in NASCAR history.
But he doesn’t score this victory without help from Earnhardt, whose No. 8 Chevrolet delivered a series of violent shots to Jarrett’s No. 88 to push him past Kevin Harvick.
“I’ve got to thank my buddy Dale Jr.,” Jarrett said after his fourth and final win in this race. “He probably had the fastest car, but he was banging my back bumper. That’s what I needed – that one push to get by (Harvick). I couldn’t have done it without Dale Jr. beating the back bumper off this thing.”
Earnhardt naturally had been happy to oblige – provided he could keep bumming rides in return for the favor.
“(Jarrett) has been a good friend to me on and off the racetrack, so I figured I’d push him to lead,” Earnhardt said. “I’m one of the few drivers in the top 15 that hasn’t bought an airplane or a helicopter, nor will I as long as I’ve got friends like Dale Jarrett hauling me to Martinsville and back.”
4. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 9, 2008: New team, new sponsor, new era.
In his highly anticipated debut with Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. left little doubt about why he had left Dale Earnhardt Inc., winning this race for the second time with a pass of Tony Stewart on the penultimate lap.
What made the victory more special for Earnhardt was the help he received from teammates, particularly Jimmie Johnson. The reigning series champion (whose drafting skills Earnhardt once infamously disparaged for triggering a massive crash at Talladega) delivered several critical pushes to Earnhardt, who led 47 laps.
“I got great help from my teammates,” Earnhardt said. “I hope the fans enjoyed that. New team, victory lane. Man, it don’t get no better. I’m so happy.”
He also thanked Stewart, who had spent the past two days in a high-profile feud with Kurt Busch that included two meetings with NASCAR officials.
“It took us off the front page,” Earnhardt said. “I felt like a load lifted off my shoulders when I saw them walking to the NASCAR hauler.”
Stewart, another good friend, actually didn’t seem to mind being runner-up. “This kid, obviously a lot is riding on his shoulders this year with the switch for him,” he said of Earnhardt. “I’m happy for him, and he deserved it. He drove his butt off. I can’t be disappointed with second.”
3. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 8, 2003: My first time around for this race also was the first victory in the event for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he made it memorable.
NASCAR’s most popular driver started last, finished first and generally seemed to toy with the field during his first victory in the Shootout. It took him only 15 laps to reach the front of the 19-car field, and he spent the remaining 55 laps yo-yoing around with a variety of impressive moves that regained him the lead three more times – the last with a power pass of Jeff Gordon with four laps left.
It felt like watching a stock-car rope-a-dope, but Earnhardt denied there was any Ali in his heavyweight game at Daytona.
“We never really do play around with them,” he said. “I always want to be up front and be the guy leading. I don’t want to have to make that valiant pass on the last lap.”
Still, he has made a habit of doing it often in plate races. This win felt very similar to his July 2001 win at Daytona – when he powered to first in the closing laps without any help in the first race at the track since his father had been killed in a last-lap crash five months earlier.
That never seems to have diminished Earnhardt’s affection for the World Center of Racing (where his father notched a record 34 victories).
“This is like coming home to your mom from college,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. “It’s great to be back here.”
2. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 12, 2006: This race was postponed by rain to late Sunday afternoon, but the lights were on by the checkered flag – which was appropriate because it was clear Denny Hamlin’s name belonged in them.
A rookie racing in the finicky Daytona draft for the first time in NASCAR’s premier series, Hamlin acquitted himself better than anyone reasonably could have expected.
Starting 15th, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver patiently bided his time and then seized the opportunity when it arrived. He didn’t lead until 20 laps to go, but then he led all but five of the remaining laps and fended off challenges from Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart.
“He didn’t make a single rookie mistake,” Stewart said of his teammate.
Hamlin finished 0.154 seconds ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who knew the winner from playing video games.
“With about 10 to go, I started thinking, ‘What if I actually win this thing?’” Hamlin said. “Everything happened so fast, it hasn’t caught up with me yet. I can’t believe it. I probably won’t believe it until I log (online) and see my face.”
The most amazing part of Hamlin’s accomplishment was what happened afterward. He wouldn’t win another restrictor-plate race for eight years (returning to Daytona victory lane in the 2014 Sprint Unlimited).
1. Budweiser Shootout, Feb. 18, 2012: Emphatically erasing the unwanted memory of tandem drafting, pack racing returned to Daytona and was punctuated by one of the greatest saves in the half-century history of the 2.5-mile oval.
Kyle Busch nipped Stewart with a nifty move off the final corner to win by 0.013 seconds, but the finish wasn’t what everyone was talking about afterward.
Halfway through the race, his No. 18 Toyota slid down the banking in Turn 2, hit Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet and then turned left twice onto the apron without losing control.
“The first time might have been luck,” Busch said. “I’m going to say the second time was all skill. I was steering, stabbing, braking, gassing, everything in between, trying to keep the thing straight, get it back under control.”
Oh, he also did get spun during the scariest of three multicar wrecks (Jeff Gordon walked away after his No. 24 landed on its roof), but Busch still managed to charge from eighth to first in an overtime finish.
“I don’t know how many times I spun out and didn’t spin out,” Kyle Busch said. “Amazing race. It was fun to drive when I wasn’t getting turned around.
Again, Stewart was the conciliatory runner-up.
“(Busch) had to catch it three times before he saved it,” said Stewart, who caught a trail of sparks from trailing behind the evasive maneuvers. “There’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t have caught that. I’m like, ‘Man, that’s the coolest save I’ve seen in a long time.’ ”
(P.S. If you like rankings and a dash of punk rock irreverence, I also spent the past 10 days counting down The Clash’s 10 greatest songs in honor of The Clash’s return. Click here for No. 1 and links to the other nine songs.)