No points are on the line, but as far as NASCAR fans are concerned, the Sprint Cup season begins this Saturday with the 34th-annual Budweiser Shootout. The invitation-only dash is open only to the top-25 drivers in last year's point standings and past Daytona 500, Coke Zero 400, and Bud Shootout champions. The event opens with a 25-lap opening segment, followed by a 10-minute red flag where teams are allowed to service their cars. Then, the green flag drops on a 50-lap battle for the victory.
There are 25 drivers on this year's entry list, highlighted by defending Sprint Cup champion and three-tme Bud Shootout winner Tony Stewart and 2011 event winner Kurt Busch. Twenty-three of the top-25 drivers are entered, minus Mark Martin and Brian Vickers. Martin's ride for the 2012 season, the No. 55 Toyota sponsored by Atlanta-based Aaron's Sales and Leases, will be driven by team owner and two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip Saturday. 2010 Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray is also entered. Last year's Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne is not on the entry list, as the Wood Brothers team is focusing its effort on trying to repeat their triumph.
Unadilla's David Ragan, winner of the most-recent Sprint Cup race at Daytona, will be making his first start in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford he signed to drive in the offseason.
For the entire entry list, visit NASCAR.com.
The Shootout doesn't count for championship points, but it provides a valuable test session for the Daytona 500 and a preview for what the on-track action may look like. Four men have used a Bud Shootout win as a springboard to claiming the Great American Race, including Dawsonville's Bill Elliott in 1987. The feat has not been accomplished since 2000, when Dale Jarrett - who also won both races in 1996 - dominated Speedweeks like few drivers before or since.
Fans who have gone through stock car withdrawals over the last three months will not want to miss the Bud Shootout or the practice sessions leading to the race. The unique qualifying format, where drivers draw for their positions in a laid-back - and often hillarious - setting, also provides great viewing.
Here is the full television schedule for the Bud Shootout. All times are Eastern, of course.
Friday, February 17
5 p.m. - Bud Shootout Practice No. 1 (SPEED)
6:30 p.m. - Bud Shootout Happy Hour (SPEED)
8:30 p.m. - Bud Shootout Qualifying Draw Party (SPEED)
Saturday, February 18
8 p.m. - 34th-annual Budweiser Shootout (FOX)