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Skirmish among subplots to Daytona buildup

Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart will start the Daytona 500 on NASCAR probation.

Busch is being punished for contact made with Stewart’s car after a crash in a practice session a week ago and Stewart for contact his fist made with Busch’s face.

Fans, apparently, aren’t the only ones with pent-up emotions waiting for the season to begin.

The Daytona 500 is the first major motor sports event of the year.

Busch and Stewart are on probation for the first six Sprint Cup Series races from actions stemming from the last practice session Feb. 8 for the Budweiser Shootout. Stewart collided with Busch, who responded by banging into Stewart’s car moments later to display his displeasure.

Heck, it was only practice for a race that doesn’t even award championship points.

A source in the garage backs up rumors that Stewart punched Busch during a NASCAR meeting after Busch commented on Stewart’s apparent offseason weight gain.

Too bad the alleged smack-down wasn’t done with cameras rolling, like in 1979 when Cale Yarborough and brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison brawled on the track at the end of the 500. It was the first NASCAR race shown flag to flag on national television.

Before last weekend’s drama between Busch and Stewart, the 500 was drawing special interest with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch driving for new teams, Toyota’s preseason testing success, an influx of open-wheel stars and the debut of the new model stock car that is wider, taller and safer but an unproven commodity on the 2.5-mile Daytona track.

Not that the 500 needed an additional story line, but lovable Earnhardt won Saturday’s Shootout in his first race for Hendrick Motorsports — his first visit to any Victory Lane in more than two years — and followed that by winning one of Thursday’s two qualifying races.

This is the 50th running of the race, which has come a long way from 1949 when winner Lee Petty got $19,050. Sunday’s winner will get a minimum of $1.44 million of the $18 million purse, which will pay the 43rd and last-place finisher $248,000.

But the Daytona 500 never should be called racing’s Super Bowl, as it often is. First, it’s not a football game, and only a race winner will be determined Sunday, not the season champion.

The 500 winner has won the season championship only eight times in 49 years.

Sunday merely is the Sprint Cup season opener and draws about 250,000 spectators. Almost 37 million TV viewers watched last year’s 500, partly because it is the first weekend since early August without an NFL game.

It comes when many folks are freezing or snowbound around the country. It’s a prayer answered for NASCAR fans in International Falls, Minn., where sunshine on the tube is a relief after this week’s record low of minus-40.

While viewers from the great north will dream of Daytona’s Sunday forecast in the high 70s, race fans at the track will dream of being in upper Minnesota, where adult beverages easily are kept cold as ice, which is a hot and expensive commodity this weekend in Daytona Beach.

NASCAR should pray for nasty weather around the country Sunday so more tune in for 12 continuous hours of race-related programs beginning at 6 a.m.

And you thought Super Bowl coverage was overkill.

It seems as if we’re in midseason form, or at least Stewart and Busch.

It’s time to go racing.

On Sunday, it will be a warm feeling to hear Fox race analyst Darrell Waltrip yell: “Boogity, boogity, boogity. Let’s go racin’, boys.”

Did I really write that?

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.

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