DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- We have spent the better part of 11 days here for Speedweeks 2012 and it seems each day has brought a new story, a new thing to marvel about. So, as part of our first Exhaust Circuit installment of 2012, here's a few behind-the-scene glimpses of the happenings down here at Daytona International Speedway
Friday, Feb. 17
We got up bright and early and made our way out to Ponce Inlet, the site of the origins of the sport where races were actually held on the beach. Trevor Bayne, the defending Daytona 500 winner, was on hand to initiate a new Daytona tradition by taking his winning No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford and driving it down the beach, collecting a green flag and steering his stock car down Route AIA (with a police escort) and taking it to the Speedway to signal the start of Speedweeks.
Among the dignitaries on hand for the beach ceremony and press conference was none other than 1961 Daytona 500 winner Marvin Panch, who at 85 ranked as the oldest living winner of the Great American Race
Panch (right), a former Daytona Beach resident, now spends his time traveling the highways and byways of our great land by motorcoach. He happily goes wherever his vagabond heart pleases. ``I'm just a hobo,'' he said, a wide grin on his face. ``If I don't like my neighbor, I just turn the [ignition] key.''
Panch recounted winning the Daytona 500 and how it did his heart good to see the Wood Brothers, for whom he also drove (but not when he won the 500), get back to Victory Lane at Daytona last year. It marked the first time since 1976 when David Pearson took the checkered in the famous No. 21 Ford.
``The Wood Brothers were always honest people to deal with,'' Panch said. ``I remember after the first race with them, waiting at the pay window for like about 2-1/2 hours or so. A couple of days later, I got a check in the mail from Glen Wood for about $50 with no explanation. I called up Glen and asked him, `Glen, what's the check for?' And he said, `Well, a good ol' boy gave me $100 dollars to put a decal on the quarterpanel of our car and I felt you deserved half of it.'
Panch was so impressed he immediately called the secretary who handled NASCAR's payouts and instructed her to send all his earnings to the Wood Brothers. ``I knew I never had to wait at another pay window again, because I knew I could trust them to take care of me,'' he said.
Saturday, Feb. 18
While Bayne's tranpsort of the green flag from the beach to the high-banks of Daytona's 2.5-mile trioval signaled the start of Speedweeks, racing didn't get underway in earnest until the Budweiser Shootout, a two-segment 75-lap affair that marked the first time drivers got to test NASCAR's new rules package -- aimed at bringing back pack-styled racing and doing away with two-car tandem drafts at carburetor restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega.
The Shootout did not disappoint, and lived up to its billing.
The race was marred by three big wrecks, the last of which saw four-time champion Jeff Gordon walk away from a frightening crash that saw him get turned into the wall in Turn 4 and turned on his driver's side. He skidded along the outside retaining wall in a shower of sparks, before sliding down the embankment to a paved run-off area near the entrance of pit road, where Gordon's car did 2-1/2 barrel rolls before coming to stop on its hood.
"This is not how I wanted to start the 2012 season; I've never been upside down in one of these cars,'' Gordon said. "The hit to the wall was much harder than the rest of it. The roll was pretty soft and easy. The protection we have inside of these cars is amazing because I didn't even hardly feel any of it. The toughest part is when you're laying upside down and you can't get out of the car. The roof was caved-in a little bit and that was no fun.''
Gordon's crash precipitated a thrilling green-white-checkered finish in which Kyle Busch, who twice averted disaster with great saves of his spinning No. 18 Toyota, made a stunning last-lap pass of runner-up Tony Stewart to win the Shootout by the scant margin of .013 seconds, the closest finish in event history.
By all accounts, Busch should have never made it to Victory Lane, but there he was after having completed a magnificent drive in which he made, perhaps, two of the biggest saves of his career.
"First time might have been luck, but I'm going to say the second time was all skill,'' he said, half-jokingly.
Busch talked about how he worked the car -- turning the wheel and alternately working the brake, the clutch and the accelerator and the gear shift -- in an attempt to get it back on track. But what intrigued me most about the anatomy of his saves was what it must have looked like from his vantage point inside the car.
So I asked him, "Can you describe what you field of vision is like when you go into spin cycle like that?''
Kyle Busch's reply: "Vision is a big key, too. It kind of tells you how crooked you are. Whether you're 45 degrees, 60 degrees, where you are. Your field of vision, you're trying to pay attention out your windshield, out the right side, obviously, kind of like a dirt car. When you're sideways in a dirt car, you're looking at the right side A post, because that's where you're going.
"You're not watching the steering wheel, looking at any of that stuff,'' he said. "You're doing it all by feel."
Sunday, Feb. 19
Pole Day saw Roush Fenway Racing drivers Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle help Ford Racing sweep the front row of the 43-car grid for the Daytona 500.
Edwards captured the pole with a fast lap of 194.738 miles per hour while Biffle qualified second fastest with a lap of 194.087.
A runner-up to Bayne in last year's 500 and a runner-up to Stewart in the championship, Edwards proved he wasn't about to take a backseat to anyone after capturing his first career Daytona 500 pole, which marked the third time Ford Racing had a pair of teammates on the front row with David Gilliland (pole) and Ricky Rudd doing so for Robert Yates Racing in 2007.
"It's a sign of strength of your team,'' Edwards said. "It's not that we just have one car up there. To have two cars, to have that whole front row, I mean, that says a lot about Roush Fenway Racing, about Ford.''
Thursday, Feb. 23
The Gatorade Duel. These pair of qualifying races used to be called ``The Twin 125s'' but with Gatorade taking on event sponsorship, the heats were expanded to 150-mile races that determined the starting order for the Daytona 500.
While the top 35 drivers in the 2011 owners points were already locked into the 43-car field, 10 drivers were left to duke it out in the Duel for the four transfer spots (two in each race) that were up for grabs. Many of these drivers come to Daytona on a shoe-string budget with nothing but a hope and a prayer of making the race
In the first Duel, won by Stewart, Michael McDowell had his prayers answered when he was highest finishing non-exempt driver, finishing sixth, while Robby Gordon claimed the other transfer spot with his ninth-place finish.
Dave Blaney (12th) and Joe Nemechek (17th, one lap down) claimed the two remaining spots in the second Duel, won by Matt Kenseth with an exciting sling-shot move past Biffle, his Roush Fenway teammate.
For Blaney, it came as a measure of sweet redemption. After all, Blaney had to forfeit the owner points he had accrued in the No. 36 Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing last year, which would have put him in the race, But Blaney's points were dealt to Stewart-Haas Racing to guarantee Danica Patrick a spot for her Daytona 500 debut.
''There's no chip on my shoulder,'' Blaney said. "Just scared we wouldn't make it. Worried about doing the right things. I say, it worked out so we're happy.''
The Duel wasn't so kind to Patrick, who destroyed the No. 10 Chevrolet she planned to race in the 500 in a scary last-lap crash in Turn 2. As the pack came around the turn in three-wide formation, Jamie McMurray's Chevy jostled Aric Almirola's Ford, which bumped into Patrick's car, causing it to veer off course at full speed for a foam barrier on an inside retaining wall.
Patrick's car was completely totaled when it made a heavy impact on the right side.
Friday, Feb. 24
Twenty-four hours after trashing Stewart's Cup car, Danica put Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide Series car on the pole for the season-opening Drive4COPD 300 at Daytona, when she became the second woman in Nationwide Series to win a pole position after Shawna Robinson did so in 1994 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"I really don’t think about it from a girls’ perspective,’’ Patrick said, referring to her place in the history books. "I’ve been taught from a young age to be the best driver … not just the best girl.’’
Patrick credited crew chief Tony Eury Jr. for preparing a pole-winning car that clocked a fast lap of 49.250 seconds. ``I’m really thrilled for Tony,’’ Patrick said. "He’s never had a pole here at Daytona and he’s built some really good speedway cars.’’
Patrick’s pole-winning lap wound up being seventh-thousandths of a second faster than that recorded by 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, who recorded a lap of 49.257 seconds (182.715 m.p.h.) in the No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
In the Camping World Truck Series opener that evening, rookie driver John King was a surprise winner when he survived a last-lap melee that took out the leaders. It was King's eighth career start. It was a stunning turn of events, to be sure, that would be repeated in the Nationwide Series opener.
Saturday, Feb. 25
James Buescher, 21, of Plano, Texas, would have been happy to take home an 11th-place finish in the Nationwide Series opener. But Buescher could scarcely believe his luck when he went into the third turn of the last lap of the Drive4COPD 300 in 11th and came out of the final turn in first, having survived the carnage of an 11-car melee that took out the leaders.
"I had enough time to point my car to the bottom and thought about going to the apron,’’ said Buescher, who hugged the bottom of the track in his No. 30 Chevrolet fielded by Turner Motorsports. "But I was worried if I went to the apron that I’d spin myself out. I kept it straight, made it through, dodged all the bullets and was the only car that came out on the other side out front.’’
Buescher, a full-time driver on the Camping World Truck Series who was running a limited Nationwide Series schedule for Turner Motorsports, finished as the surprise winner of a race that was slowed by eight cautions for 35 laps – including three wrecks involving 11 or more cars in the final 16 laps, a 19-car crash resulting in a red flag period of 4 minutes 12 seconds – to claim his first career Nationwide Series victory.
With one day of racing left in Speedweeks 2012, Sunday can't come fast enough.