25 cars started the race. Only 10 crossed the finish line. The flames were high and the crashes frequent as pack racing made a comeback on the restrictor-plates at Daytona. In fact, only three drivers escaped the wreckage of the Bud Shootout untouched. But it was not the ones who survived the carnage unscathed that were the standouts in NASCAR’s all-star race. It was the one whose two wreck recoveries kept him in the race – and ultimately put him in Victory Lane.

Kyle Busch’s expert maneuvering of the #18 M&M’s Toyota had even NASCAR fans who hate the rowdy Joe Gibbs Racing driver going wild in the stands. He first steered the car back on track after almost spinning out not once, but twice coming out of Turn 2. Then, after a multicar pile-up near the finish, Busch again proved himself a wheel master as he recovered to take over defending Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart for the win in a photo finish. The finish was the closest in Bud Shootout history at a .013 second margin of victory. The race was no doubt packed with on-your-feet, nail-biting action. In other words, it was exactly what NASCAR was shooting for.

The talk of the offseason was how to stop the rampant two-car tandem drafting that had become unpopular with fans and drivers alike. NASCAR’s response was making rule modifications to force the cars to overheat quicker, preventing them from tucking up behind each other to draft. This was the first race where these new rules were put to the test.

It’s safe to say that after the Demolition Derby that was the Bud Shootout, NASCAR’s changes have brought the demise of tandem drafting. But with it, come the dangers of pack racing. Three big wrecks happened throughout the course of the 75 lap race. One sent Kevin Harvick from Turn 2 into the garage with flames shooting out from under his car the entire way. The final wreck on Lap 73 where Busch made his epic save for the finish sent Jeff Gordon barrel rolling out of Turn 4 to land on his roof. Although Harvick and Gordon walked away safely, the risk remains on the track.

The aggressive style of the pack and overheating issues are a concern heading into next Sunday’s showdown. Kyle Busch said his water temperature was up to 300 degrees at the end of the race. And that was in cool, upper 60’s evening weather on the beach – the forecast for the 500 looks to be in the 80’s on a sunny Florida afternoon. Then add in 18 less experienced drivers to the 25 all-stars contending in the Saturday’s pack, and you never know what could happen.

Still, many drivers prefer the old-style pack to the two-car tango. Even Gordon’s perilous wreck wasn’t enough to turn him against it. “It’s pretty wild and crazy, but I liked this better than what we had last year. Definitely,” said Gordon.

Second-place finisher Stewart was not bitter either. “I actually had fun racing at Daytona again, which I haven’t for a while,” said the #14 driver.

It seems the general consensus is that the 2012 season is shaping up to look a lot different than it did one year ago. But with the 500, there are no safe predictions. Only Sunday may tell just how “different” this season will be.