If you like wreck-fests and fuel-mileage finishes, Sunday's Daytona 500 was a real gas.
First, Chase Elliott's Chevy coughed and sputtered, then the Chevy of Kyle Larson did likewise and, finally, winner Kurt Busch's Ford was in front. All of this after pile-ups sent 15 cars to the garage.
Crashes are measured in g-loads, which meant plenty of energy was on display in the season opener for the newly renamed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
It just wasn't the kind of energy anybody can drink or that gets drivers to the finish line. As in the crash-infused Camping World Truck Series race on Friday and the Xfinity Series race on Saturday, drivers were amped up and hyped up by the new format that awards points twice in preliminary stages before a final stage begins.
The checkers flew for only 25 cars running in part due to NASCAR's new Damaged Vehicle Policy, which limits repairs on the pit road and forces cars that need any additional work behind the wall into retirement. Mostly, cars went missing due to crashes resulting from over-exuberance and drivers lost in weird strategies as teams tried to "stage" pit stops to come out ahead in the first two stages.
Among those absent early was leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., who couldn't even avoid heavy contact while in first place when the almost-lapped Toyota of Kyle Busch spun in front of him. (As evidenced by the younger Busch's unsuccessful efforts to stay on the lead lap, the Toyota teams' new-fangled strategy of oddly-timed pit stops to win early stages backfired and ruined any chance of repeating last year's victory by Denny Hamlin under team tactics. At least the new format may have blown up plans for team drafting strategies in the future).
An exasperated defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, whose Chevy got sandwiched between the cars of Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne, crashed out 73 laps from the finish -- usually a relatively more sedate segment.
"The whole back straightaway two of them were trying to wreck me," Johnson said.
Even the spotters were worn out by contact. "He's hit everything but the snack bar today," said Tab Boyd, who spots for Joey Logano. This was in reference to pole starter Elliott's maneuvering in the draft.
The race was as much war zone as competition. The victorious Stewart-Haas Racing Ford had a right front corner held together by black tape and "did not have a single straight panel on it," said winner Kurt Busch while standing beside a car that epitomized rubbing is racing.
Is this any way to run a major league racing series? NASCAR officials and the executives at Fox Sports and NBC Sports, who came up with the three-stage plan, believe it is. While the TV execs pushed for ways to get fans to tune in longer to help rejuvenate ratings, it was NASCAR which devised the actual three-stage strategy, albeit after consultation with "influencers" in the garage.
So, this is it -- the new way forward, or perhaps a quick trip to the garage and retirement.
It was a "cleaner" race at the finish due to the absence of damaged vehicles, probably what the organizers and TV execs were seeking. One hopes they didn't anticipate the stages might actually cause more crashing.
Given that the Daytona 500 trophy is a career-maker and that restrictor plate racing encourages unavoidable contact, maybe Sunday's race was a one-off as drivers and teams got used to the new rules.
Perhaps the garage will not fill up so fast as the season progresses. On the other hand, all the different strategies at play in the push for stage points are likely to continue to create combinations of faster and slower cars running together, which is a recipe for wrecks.
It was a Daytona 500 for the relatively aged as it turned out. The final charge of Ryan Blaney, age 24, fell short following the abrupt departure from the lead of 21-year-old Elliott and 24-year-old Larson. All three ran out of gas before the older Busch, 38, won his first NASCAR crown jewel in his 17th season and after finishing second three times.
"I tell you, age and wisdom, they come together," said Kurt Busch. "Youth is wasted on the young. I've been through some different patches here or there, but to have a team that believes in me, that's the most important part. To have a wife that believes in me, and a family of course, all the way through all of this."
Busch's roughest patches came in 2015, when NASCAR suspended him just prior to the Daytona 500 after a family court in Delaware found that he probably committed domestic violence. But Delaware's attorney general decided not to prosecute and Busch's accuser, an ex-girlfriend, was later indicted on federal charges of fraud and tax evasion, which cast further doubt on her accusations.
Busch's Stewart-Haas Racing team and his sponsor, Monster Energy, stuck by him through this episode, and in January he married polo player and model Ashley Van Metre. Busch said it was his new bride who inspired him to ignore the fact his rear-view mirror broke free from one of its mounting points and was useless during the final tense 30 laps while hanging crookedly.
The mirror malfunction helps explains how Larson snuck past him for third place with three laps to go. But Busch then followed Larson past Martin Truex Jr. to take second before going into the lead -- for the first time in the race -- on the final lap.
The Kurt Busch or previous years, who struggled with anger issues, might have come unhinged after losing his mirror, since restrictor plate racing at Daytona is about mirror driving. Instead, Busch asked himself what Ashley would do?
"She laughs at stuff like this. I'm laughing at it, too." Busch said he reverted to his days of driving Dwarf cars as a teenager in Las Vegas, since they didn't have mirrors, and to what his father had taught him. "You go off intuition, off momentum, off sound of other cars."
Nobody was happier at the result than Tony Gibson, known as the "Old Man," who won his first Daytona 500 as a crew chief after 15 years of trying. The gruff Gibson, 52, was born at nearby Halifax Medical Center. He got his nickname for acting more like he was 62 for the last 10 seasons. But he hollered like a happy kid after the race.
If it's possible for a retired driver to win the Daytona 500, then Tony Stewart defied time by helping to get his SHR team to the Harley J. Earl trophy for the first time. Stewart won more than his share of races at Daytona, but never the vaunted 500.
"When you've grown up all your life as a race car driver you want to win it as a driver," said Stewart. "For every driver, there's a point where you step out of the car and you do something different. To have an opportunity to come back this year as an owner and still have the opportunity to be where we're at right now, I mean, that's a pretty exciting feeling."
The SHR team's new racing marriage and an arduous switch to Ford from Chevy during the off-season likely played a role. All the teams pitted for the last time on the same lap under caution, but it was the Ford V8s built by Roush Yates Engines that ran to the finish and took four of the top six positions.
Runner-up Blaney's Ford coughed but still came home second despite his rambunctious efforts that likely used up fuel as the laps wound down.
Given that NASCAR altered the format for the first time since the original Daytona 500 in 1959, it was a race for the ages, too. There is no looking back -- no rear-view mirror -- now that the three-stage format is in place for all of the sanctioning body's three major traveling series.
Time will tell if rubbing is racing has indeed turned into wrecking is racing and the survival of the least damaged.