DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The pack is back. And so is the Big One.
Kyle Busch edged Tony Stewart in a thrilling finish to the first race of 2012, using a sling-shot pass Saturday night on the last lap of the exhibition Budweiser Shootout to beat the defending NASCAR champion to the checkered flag.
It gave Busch a victory in a wild race that included two incredible saves by the eventual winner to stay in contention in the 75-lap sprint around Daytona International Speedway.
"I don't know how many times I spun out, but I didn't spin out, you know?" smiled Busch, who gave Toyota its first Shootout victory.
The event was a preview of next weekend's season-opening Daytona 500, and showed that NASCAR has successfully broken up the two-car tandem racing that dominated restrictor-plate racing last year. Fans were overwhelmingly opposed to that style of racing — NASCAR said earlier this month surveys showed over 80 percent of those polled hated the tandem — and the sanctioning body worked hard through the offseason to develop a rules package that would separate the cars.
"The pack racing is back, and that gives the drivers a little more control and adds a lot of excitement for the fans — and that's the biggest thing: the fans wanted pack racing back and NASCAR listened and delivered," Clint Bowyer said.
It was obvious at the start that the new rules worked as the drivers were lumped into a big pack and raced two-and-three wide for almost the entire race. Although it led to two big accidents — including an accident that sent Jeff Gordon skidding on his roof for what he said was the first time in his career — the drivers were nearly unanimous in their approval of the racing.
"I actually had fun racing at Daytona again, which I haven't had for a while," said Stewart, who was beat by .013 seconds — the blink of an eye — to the finish line.
"I don't know what the consensus is from everybody else, but I had more fun as a driver tonight than what we've had in the past."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a strong critic of the tandem racing, also was thrilled with the new product despite having his night ruined in one of the many accidents.
"I like this kind of racing better. At least I know what to expect," he said. "And I feel like I've got a better chance with this style than I did last year."
The first multi-car accident was a mere nine laps into the race, and began when David Ragan nudged Paul Menard to trigger the nine-car pileup.
A later wreck with two laps remaining sent Gordon sliding on his roof for roughly 1,000 feet. The four-time NASCAR champion ultimately climbed out the window with his car still upside down, but, like Earnhardt, praised the racing.
"It's pretty wild and crazy, but I liked this better than what we had last year. Definitely," he said.
Gordon's accident began when he ran into the back of Busch, who used his second save of the night to avoid the accident. An earlier save left fellow competitors in awe.
"There aren't many people, ever, who could have done that," said three-time champion Stewart, who was behind Busch on the first save.
Busch shrugged off his saves in Victory Lane.
"Stab and steer — that's what you do — and some braking. There were brakes involved too," Busch smiled.
Of his pass of Stewart, Busch said he'd learned from previous mistakes.
"I've seen the move done before, it was my turn to do it this time," he said. "He knew he was a sitting duck as soon as we got clear of everybody. He knew the race was over. He knew the winner."
The race went to a two-lap overtime sprint to the finish, and the drivers ultimately were paired in tandems over the final push. Stewart conceded that the winner likely won't be the leader on the final lap of the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.
"I think history shows that you want to be that second guy, especially here, it just seems like for some reason you can make that move here," Stewart said. "It just seems like that second spot is kind of the one you want to be in. I'm not ruling out that you can't win it from being that lead car. You've got to plan ahead for it.
"You knew it was coming; it was just a matter of what to do to guard against it."
As wild as Saturday night was — only 10 of the 25 cars entered finished on the lead lap — few thought the Daytona 500 would be a carbon copy. With no points on the line in the Shootout, it's viewed as a throwaway race for drivers to push the limits.
Over 500 miles in the biggest race of the year? Drivers might be a bit more cautious.
"You saw an intensity level tonight you won't see for the 500," Jeff Burton said. "What happens in the 500 every year, it always happens, everybody is pretty calm. Then it gets about halfway and it starts to get a little more intense. Then those last 100 miles, there's just caution after caution after caution, and you get a mad dash for the end."