Kurt Busch won NASCAR's first event of the season, the annual invitation-only Budwesier Shootout at the Daytona International Speedway - but only after Denny Hamlin had crossed the finish line in first place and then been black-flagged by NASCAR officials.

Dale Earnhardt Jr had drawn the pole position for the Shootout ahead of Tony Steward, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, with Kurt Busch starting relatively far down in 17th. Earnhardt got a good start but it was Clint Bowyer making the best getaway of all the front-runners, taking the lead from 7th spot before pairing up with the #88 to continue running at the front as the field started to work out that two cars were better than one when it came to drafting on the newly repaved Daytona track.

Denny Hamlin was soon seeking a drafting partner of his own, first trying Kasey Kahne out for size but the #4 Red Bull abruptly faed from contention with an engine problem and headed to the pits on lap 7, leaving Hamlin to knock on Tony Stewart's door to allow the pair to run third and fourth.

The status quo at the front did not last for much longer. Jimmie Johnson, Kurt and Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton were all on the move to the front, and it was Burton who surged into the lead, working with Tony Stewart and briefly boosting the #14 into the lead as well before Dale Earnhardt Jr hooked up with Kyle Busch (of all people) to return to the lead on lap 17. Kyle decided he wanted a turn in front too and led for four laps before Jeff Burton once again took charge into the first yellow of the day at lap 25, a scheduled caution that allowed all the cars to come in for some adjustments and to take a short break before the final 50-lap sprint to the end.

When racing resumed after a ten minute hiatus, Burton led Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson to the green flag - but racing did not last long, as the old idiom "cautions breed cautions" was proven once more.

Carl Edwards went for a particularly aggressive strategy at the restart and paid for it in a big way, initially getting turned by contact with the #78 of Regan Smith that sent him into a major accident with crowd favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and spinning it into the wall. With all the cars still tightly packed form the restart, it was inevitable that the wreck would catch out others as well - and Joey Logano, Juan Montoya and Kevin Conway all got collected. Jimmie Johnson also sustained right-side damage, but at least his pit crew were able to fix it up and get him back out on the road.

"We were three- or four-wide back there and I was going between the #88 and the #78, and I don't think the #78 knew I was in there," explained Edwards. "He kept coming down, and I just had enough of my car in there. I laid up against the #88 and then the #78 got me in the right-front."

The race ran under yellow for seven laps before restarting on lap 34, but once again there was a rapid yellow - this time caused by a collision between Mark Martin and Kyle Busch on lap 36 which sent them both to the pits. Although Kyle thought the damage was minimal at first, he pulled in again on lap 42 and headed for the garage, his day done.

The race went green again, and the most effective drafting pair initially proved to be between the leader Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, while behind them Kurt Busch hooked up with Jamie McMurray and Jimmie Johnson paired up with Greg Biffle to provide the strongest challenges.

Johnson and Biffle had taken over the lead when the fourth caution came out for a solo accident by Michael Waltrip, who got loose and found the wall on lap 48. It was only a brief yellow before racing resumed on lap 50, 25 to go, with just 14 cars remaining on track out of the initial 24-strong field.

The lead continued to change around as drafting pairs came together, tried out, then went their separate ways. Burton lost the support of Harvick who slumped back to eighth place, but was joined instead by Clint Bowyer as he, Johnson (still with Biffle) and Kurt Busch (with amie McMurray) alternated in the lead. Denny Hamlin was also running fast and up at the front but was in need of a drafting partner, which finally materialised in the form of Ryan Newman as the race entered its final dozen laps.

Newman hit the lead with Hamlin's help, and proved remarkably resilient in that top spot and would not be shifted for ten of the last 12 laps. The race finally saw a four-car breakaway at the front, with Newman and Hamlin leading Busch and McMurray and the foursome as a whole more than 2s ahead of the rest, and it all came down to the final two laps and who had the best on-track strategy to pass his partner and the rival pairing and get to that chequered flag first.

Busch and McMurrary continued to act together, McMurray pushing Kurt all the way to the finish, but Hamlin decided to go solo and broke away from Newman, cutting underneath him on a low line through the final turn and claiming the chequered flag by inches from the others. But it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, because cutting so low and dipping under the yellow line is a strict no-no at Daytona, and Hamli was inevitably penalised for the infraction which put him to the back of the lead lap - all the way down to 12th, handing Kurt Busch the win.

Hamlin said afterwards that he took the move deliberately on safety grounds. "That yellow line is there to protect us and the fans in the stands, and I just chose to take the safer route,.

"A win in the Shootout is not worth sending the #39 [Newman] through the grandstands," he said, adding that he was sure that if "I got into his left rear, that car will go airborne."

Overall, the Budweiser Shootout offers valuable data to the drivers and teams on how to tackle the newly-repaved Daytona International Speedway aead of the start of the Sprint Cup season here next weekend, with two-car drafting proved to be very much the new order of the day rather than the old style of multi-car packs running in big groups, only for cars to drop back dramatically once the drafting pair separate to allow the pushing vehicle to get some air into its radiator.

"What an unbelievable experience, this two-car draft," said the victorious Kurt Busch. "I had no idea what to expect going in. I was just going to take it one lap at a time and see how it played out."

"It's completely different plate racing than we've ever had," agreed his drafting 'team mate' for the night, Jamie McMurray. "I hope it was exciting for the fans to watch. But from the driver's seat, it was actually really exciting to push two-by-two and do the side draft."

The Shootout was as much about auditioning dance partners for next week's race as it was about the day's racing and prize money in its own right. Kurt Busch and McMurray, and Harvick and Burton were both effective double acts, and remarkably so were the odd couple of Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch, although Dale was later heard saying that the #18 "jacks my car around like he has Velcro on that thing."

The Shootout marks the start of a week-long series of events at the venue, including the Gatorade Duel on Thursday and all the practice and qualifying sessions for the Daytona 500, the traditional curtain-raiser to the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and regarded as the most important and prestigious race of the entire year, not to mention the one carrying the most prize money.

The Daytona 500 is on Sunday, February 20 from 1pm local time.

Shootout results

1. Kurt Busch 75 laps
2. Jamie McMurray 75 laps
3. Ryan Newman 75 laps
4. Jimmie Johnson 75 laps
5. Greg Biffle 75 laps
6. Jeff Gordon 75 laps
7. Kevin Harvick 75 laps
8. Jeff Burton 75 laps
9. Clint Bowyer 75 laps
10. Bobby Labonte 75 laps
11. Tony Stewart 75 laps
12. Denny Hamlin 75 laps
13. Matt Kenseth 74 laps
14. Derrike Cope 73 laps
15. Michael Waltrip 47 laps Accident
16. Kyle Busch 41 laps Accident
17. Mark Martin 36 laps Accident
18. Joey Logano 27 laps Accident
19. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 27 laps Accident
20. Juan Montoya 27 laps Accident
21. Carl Edwards 27 laps Accident
22. Regan Smith 27 laps Accident
23. Kevin Conway 26 laps Accident
24. Kasey Kahne 7 laps Engine



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