NASCAR has decided to expand the field for the Feb. 7 Budweiser Shootout from 24 to 28 cars, giving each manufacturer a 'wild card' entry into the event.

Under the expanded format, two-time Sprint Cup champion and former Bud Shootout winner Tony Stewart will be eligible to compete.

In concert with sponsor Anheuser-Busch and Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR announced in August a radical change in the eligibility guidelines for the event, which previously had consisted primarily of pole winners from the previous season and former winners of the race.

Currently, each manufacturer's top-six cars in 2008 owner points are guaranteed starting spots in the Shootout, a non-points event that kicks off the season at Daytona.

The tweaks to the eligibility rules will consist of two provisions. First, any manufacturer who has a past Cup champion who attempted to qualify for each of the 36 points races during the previous season will be able to designate that driver as a Shootout entry.

That gets Stewart, driving his new #14 Stewart Haas Racing Chevy, into the field. The #14 has assumed the 2008 owner points of the #70 Haas-CNC Chevy and would not otherwise be eligible.

Second, if a manufacturer doesn't have a past champion, the seventh car from that manufacturer in 2008 owner points will qualify. If the seventh car in owner points is no longer active, the next car in owner points rank could be designated.

Seventh for Ford in 2008 was the #38 Yates Racing Ford, whose owner points will transfer to the #96 Ford that Bobby Labonte will drive in 2009 for a partnership between car owner Hall of Fame Racing and team operator Yates Racing, Sporting News has learned. Labonte, who drove the #43 Petty Enterprises Dodge last year, also would make the field as a past champion designee.

Seventh in owner points for Dodge and Toyota, respectively, are the #10 Gillett Evernham Charger and the #22 Bill Davis Racing Toyota. GEM hasn't announced that it will field the #10 car in 2009, and Bill Davis sold his organisation to Mike Held and Marty Gaunt, who will not field Toyotas if they are active in the Cup Series this year.

As was announced earlier, the Shootout has been expanded from 70 to 75 laps. Starting positions will be determined by blind draw on Feb. 5.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News