Denny Hamlin’s attempted under-the-yellow-line pass notwithstanding, the most interesting part of Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout was the hookup of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch in the opening 25-lap segment of the race.
It was a little bit like watching Alfalfa from “The Little Rascals” join forces with his perennial bully, Butch.
Depending on your perspective you can decide who is who. Junior’s the umpteen time Sprint Cup Most Popular Driver, while all Busch did was win 24 races in NASCAR’s top three series in 2010. Busch, unlike many who skirt around the issue, has openly questioned Junior’s talent. He said in 2009 that Earnhardt’s crew chief shuffling does nothing more than create a convenient excuse.
And yet, there the two were in the first 25 laps, seemingly bosom buddies. To be sure, restrictor plate racing has produced some strange bedfellows over the years. But now’s it’s different. Before there were often eight cars in a pack, so the person who finished first didn’t need to give the car directly behind him too much credit.
In today’s world of two-car drafts, the top finishers in this year’s race could be indelibly connected. And a potential Earnhardt-Busch alliance is just one of several unlikely partnerships that could form Sunday and have the winner biting his tongue before thanking his “pal” for the assist, including:
* Kevin Harvick-Joey Logano: The pair’s tangle at Pocono last June produced the second-best line of the year, when Logano tweaked Harvick and wife DeLana with, “His wife wears the firesuit in the family.” If the new face of Budweiser comes home first, perhaps he can return the favor by offering the 20-year-old Logano a six-pack of O’Doul’s.
* Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski: The only reason Logano’s swipe came home runner-up was Bob Keselowski’s unforgettable, “He ain’t going to kill my boy” after Edwards planted Brad Keselowski in Nationwide action at Gateway, one of several memorable 2010 moments for the drivers. Between Keselowski, who pretty much admits he’ll spin out his preacher to win a race, and Edwards, who’s so bipolar he kisses babies in between pulling punches at teammates, this pair could go 1-2 and put the Donnie Allison-Cale Yarborough battle royale to shame, all at the same time.
* Hamlin-Keselowski: Amazing how old Nationwide dust-ups retain a prominent spot in our minds. After Keselowski dumped Hamlin in Phoenix at the 2009 penultimate Nationwide race, Hamlin offered up, “There’s a lot of guys that have a lot of chips that they’re going to cash in. I’m just going to be the first at the pay window.” He didn’t lie, as he bounced Keselowski the next week — while sporting a Godspeaks.com paint scheme, no less. It might take some divine intervention to keep these two off each other Sunday.
* And my personal dark horse favorite, Robby Gordon-Kevin Conway: Don’t laugh, folks! The only place Gordon has a chance to win other than a road course is a superspeedway, and Conway, despite still needing to qualify during the Gatorade Duel, had his best 2010 finish at last July’s Daytona race. Gordon’s currently suing Conway’s sponsor, Extenze, for non-payment from last year. It’s the second such suit for the company, which apparently is good at extending everything except a check.
What other unlikely pairs could dance all the way to the Daytona 500 checkered flag? State your case in the comments section.