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Return of the Wild Bunch

by Cathy Elliott

Editor’s Note: This column appears weekly in The Journal. Subscribe to the print or online edition and see what Cathy has to say on NASCAR racing each week!

Is it totally uncool to admit that the Budweiser Shootout is one of my top five favorite races of the year?

Although the Shootout does end the seemingly interminable drought known as the NASCAR off-season – with Budweiser instead of water, no less — it isn’t a points-paying event and doesn’t even feature a full 43-driver field. Still, I love it, and the format is the reason why.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for Westerns. When I go home to the Outer Banks for a visit, the days pass in a virtually endless loop of me and my dad eating shrimp and watching “3:10 to Yuma.” I, along with several of my cronies in Darlington, S.C., have spent many an afternoon forgoing Drs. Oz and Phil in favor of “The Big Valley” and “Rawhide.”

So when my friend Pete learned I had never seen the 1995 film “The Quick and the Dead,” he was fast on the trigger and put his own DVD copy in my hands the very next day. “You’re gonna love this,” he said.

Pete was right. The movie’s plot revolves around a dueling competition in which a field of talented sharpshooters battles head to head until only one remains. Although each participant is talented, somehow every contest becomes a free-for-all with a lot of yelling and flailing around and taking wildly improbable shots. Picture the NCAA basketball tournament with guns and you’ll get the picture.

Better yet, check out the Budweiser Shootout (Saturday, Feb. 18, 8 p.m. ET, FOX).

This Shootout offers an action-packed combination of the Good, the Bad, and sometimes the Ugly; no points are involved, so as far as the overall 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series goes, winning can’t help you and losing can’t hurt you.

The field is comprised of last season’s top 25 in the driver standings, former Shootout champions, and past Daytona points race winners. For our purposes here, since they’re racing for glory and money rather than points, we’ll just call them the Searchers. Or maybe the Wild Bunch would be more appropriate.

The starting grid for the Shootout is determined by a random draw. The race is a two-part event totaling 75 laps – one 50 and one 25-lap segment. A 10-minute intermission-type pit stop between segments allows teams to change tires, fill ‘er up with fuel and make adjustments.

Since this is Daytona International Speedway (DIS) we’re talking about, drafting certainly comes into play, but team loyalty does not. True Grit is required to make it to the end, and no matter who helps a particular driver out during the contest, he will Hang ‘Em High with no hesitation whatsoever if that checkered flag is within reach.

“Throughout its long history, the Budweiser Shootout has produced plenty of fireworks on the track and race fans can expect another exciting star-studded night of racing as we kick off the new NASCAR season,” said Joie Chitwood III, president of DIS.

With this year’s Shootout purse exceeding $1 million, much more than bragging rights are at stake — a Fistful of Dollars. What else?

The Budweiser Shootout, of course, is the first major event leading up to the 54th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 26.

The week also includes Daytona 500 qualifying on Sunday, Feb. 19; the Gatorade Duel races on Thursday, Feb. 23; the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Friday, Feb. 24; and Danica Patrick’s fulltime NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, Feb. 25. It’s sort of like taking the starving cast of “Survivor” to a steakhouse buffet line and telling them to have it.

In other words, after a long and lonely winter, it’s time for a real racing Bonanza.

NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott is also the author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Visit her online at www.mybrainonnascar.com.

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