Shootout, Pole Day mean a roller-coaster weekend for Cup fans

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR's one-game preseason takes to the track Saturday night. This is one thing these guys get right.

And if it's anything like the sheet-metal bashing final practice Friday night, the fans are in for a heck of a show.

Then comes Pole Day on Sunday for next weekend's 50th Daytona 500. Pole Day is one of the things these guys get wrong, but more on that later.

First the good stuff, the Bud Shootout. It's one race, for one night, one week before NASCAR's season-opening event.

Not four meaningless games with players who won't be around once the real season begins, as the NFL has. No 30-game boredom with guys playing half-speed in facilities they won't see when the actual seasons starts, as baseball does.

And Saturday night's 70-lap sprint means something to the drivers involved; there's $1.1 million on the line for the 23 participants.

But this one means even more. It's the first time the new car, formerly known as the Car of Tomorrow, races on the 2.5-mile oval at Daytona.

"It's going to be interesting to see how these cars handle here in a big pack," said two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "We've made a lot of laps in testing the past few weeks, but there's no comparison to being out there in the battle."

Johnson is one of 23 drivers who gets to find out. The Bud Shootout field is comprised of 2007 pole winners and previous Shootout winners. This is the largest field in the event's 28-year history.

The race is two segments: 20 laps of feeling things out, a 10-minute break and then 50 laps to the finish that often include some wild moments down the stretch.

"It's incredibly important to get this track time," said David Gilliland, who's in the race thanks to his pole at Daytona a year ago. "Being in this race has to help us out. It allows us to try certain things with the car that they might not have been able to try at the Daytona 500. I feel like it's a real advantage. It means a lot."

Drivers don't use the car they will drive in the 500. Usually it's the back-up car, but now it's the back-up to the back-up for some drivers who crashed in two incidents during the final practice session Friday night.

Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Bill Elliott and Kurt Busch, who drew the pole spot Thursday, all have to go to a third car for the Shootout.

Tony Stewart ran into the back of Busch's car in practice before Busch retaliated on the track, bashing into Stewart car under caution. Both men were called to the NASCAR hauler.

Mistakes, tempers tantrums and torn up cars summed up the final practice.

"I expect to see a lot more of this Saturday," said Mark Martin. "These guys are going to have to be a little more conservative with these cars."

Martin, who won the Shootout in 1999, has competed in a record 20 consecutive Shootouts and 21 overall. Four drivers are competing for the first time -- Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson, J.J. Yeley and Martin Truex Jr.

"It's just a no-holds-barred great race for the fans and the drivers," Johnson said. "And it's a great way to get back in the groove without the added pressure of knowing points are on the line."

After Saturday night's excitement comes Sunday afternoon's snoozefest. Single-car qualifying for any restrictor-plate race is three hours of your life you'll never get back.

It's boring for the drivers and fans. As Stewart has said: "A monkey could do it."

It takes one full lap to get up to speed with the restricted engines, then one lap with the pedal to the floor in hopes that your guys found a little more horsepower than your opponents.

But Daytona 500 Pole Day is truly meaningful for only two drivers. The front row is the only thing that's set on Sunday. Everyone else is vying for starting position in the Gatorade Duel qualifying races, which take place Thursday.

Explaining all the ramifications of this ridiculously convoluted system would take an MIT mathematician, but here are the basics:

At most, eight starting spots are available for the 500. Seventeen drivers don't have a guaranteed spot. The top 35 in owners' points from last season are in, which adds to the boredom of Pole Day and the qualifying races.

Figuring out who gets in and who doesn't from the Duel races is a headache waiting to happen. If NASCAR really wants some drama, it should put all the non-qualified cars in the same Duel event. Now that would be a sprint race worth watching.

Toyota is the happiest manufacturer at Daytona this year. The Camry camp already has five guaranteed spots in the 500, which is one more than Toyota had in the race last year.

And the Camrys without a guaranteed spot were among the fastest cars in testing, so things are looking up.

Toyota had two drivers in the Shootout last year; it has six in the field this year, including 2007 winner Stewart.

So enjoy the show Saturday night and try to stay awake Sunday. The 2008 season is here.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.