Tuesday, January 11, 2011

COMMENTARY: Bud Shootout Needs A Makeover

The annual Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway is one of the sport’s truly legendary events. Since 1979, the Bud Shootout has produced decades of excitement and top-notch competition, providing an outstanding kickoff to the NASCAR season. Its list of former winners reads like a “Who’s Who” of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing, and despite not awarding a single point toward any series championship, its pedigree is second to none. Now, however, it may be time for the Budweiser Shootout to undergo a body-off makeover.

Late week, NASCAR and Budweiser announced a new set of qualifying criteria for this year’s race; the second major makeover in as many seasons. For 2011, event organizers will usher in all 12 of last year’s Chase drivers, former series champions and Shootout winners, former Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 winners and "leading rookies from the 2001-2010 seasons," watering down what was once a de-facto all-star race to the point where it is now barely recognizable.

2010 Rookie of the Year Kevin Conway will race in this year’s Bud Shootout, despite having just one Top-20 finish in his entire Sprint Cup Series career. Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya and Regan Smith will be a part of the field, despite finishing 20th, 16th, 17th and 28th in last year’s Sprint Cup championship points. John Andretti is invited, despite making just one Cup series start last season. Geoff Bodine is eligible to compete, after making a single start-and-park appearance in 2010, and only five in the last three seasons. Sterling Marlin and Derrike Cope didn’t run a single Sprint Cup lap in 2010, but they’re in the Bud Shootout too, if they can find a ride.

For the record, I have no quarrel with Conway, Andretti, Bodine, Marlin or Cope. They have all been invited to take part in this year’s race, and have every right to compete. My complaint is with the event itself, which now seems to exist simply because it always has. There used to be a point to the Budweiser Shootout. It provided a much-anticipated tipoff to the season and a tangible reward for winning poles, races and championships. But in recent years – since Budweiser forfeited sponsorship of the Sprint Cup Pole Award to rival Coors -- Daytona’s “value added” bonus for a season of excellence has become a steaming plate of increasingly bland, “who else can we invite” hash.

NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., said recently that he believes our sport suffers from a certain degree of overexposure. He is not alone in that point of view. With 36 point-counting races and two additional non-point events on the Sprint Cup schedule alone, NASCAR has become an All You Can Eat buffet; leaving fans bloated and lethargic, instead of hungry for more. Too much of a good thing is… well… too much, and fans from coast to coast seem finally to have reached the point of satiation.

Not coincidentally, NASCAR officials have begun openly discussing the possibility of trimming the Sprint Cup Series schedule for the first time in the history of the sport. If – at long last -- the sanctioning body is truly willing to consider giving fans less of a good thing, a good place to start would be the Budweiser Shootout. Either give the race a much-needed tune up – restoring it to something approaching its former prominence -- or drop it in the dumpster, once and for all.

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