Close finishes, Waltrip drama gives NASCAR much-needed jolt

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It was two close finishes and one close call for Michael Waltrip - exactly what NASCAR needed.

Stirring finishes to a pair of Thursday qualifying races, Waltrip's nervous waiting game to see if he'd get a spot in the Daytona 500, and the roller-coaster ride of emotions between those who made the show and those who did not combined to give NASCAR the boost it's been craving.

Jimmie Johnson nipped Kevin Harvick by .005 seconds in the first race, then Kasey Kahne edged Tony Stewart by .014 seconds in the second to set the stage for what should be an exciting season-opening Daytona 500.

"I think we put on one heck of a race," said Johnson, who had to hold steady in a door-to-door battle with Harvick across the finish line.

"I definitely feel like (the racing) has been pretty exciting and good from my standpoint," said Kahne, who passed Stewart and then had his own side-by-side race to the finish.

There was more drama off the track, as well.

Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, had planned to make his final start at Daytona in Sunday's race. But he wrecked out of the first race and was at the mercy of the finishing order of the second race to claim a spot in the field.

He needed either Bobby Labonte or Scott Speed to grab one of the "transfer" spots into the race, and Waltrip settled into a television studio to watch the second race on a slew of monitors.

Waltrip was riveted as Speed used a late-race pass that helped him make the 500.

"I know I had an interest in what was happening for myself ... but I've never seen anything more exciting in my whole life than that (race)," Waltrip said. "The race for the win, those guys mixing it up, that's hard. If you don't like that, then you need to become a fan of a different sport because that right there is as good as it gets."

It's what NASCAR needed heading into its version of the Super Bowl.

The sport has been battered the past few years by critics who argue the racing has grown stale and the drivers are too boring. A series of offseason changes to various rules, and an edict to the drivers to loosen up and show more personality, has created hope for some energy in NASCAR.

The tinkering continued all the way up to Thursday's races, too. After a unsatisfying end under caution to this past weekend's exhibition Budweiser Shootout, NASCAR announced in its pre-race driver meeting that it would make three attempts going forward to end a race under green.

The new policy wasn't needed in the qualifiers, though, as drivers cleanly mixed it up and staged a stellar race to the finish.

There were several side stories, too.

Max Papis, a close friend of Johnson's, stayed out on old tires to gain track position then had to hold on tight to claim his first berth in the Daytona 500. The former sports-car star cried on pit road during his celebration.

"I don't want to be called anymore the 'road-course racer,' " Papis said. "I want to be called 'Mad Max, the NASCAR racer."

Michael McDowell, who got one shot at the Sprint Cup Series two seasons ago with Waltrip's team, made his first attempt at the Daytona 500 in an underfunded car that relies on Michael Waltrip Racing for support. He joined Papis as the other driver to race his way in through the first qualifier.

"For me, it's the biggest race of the year for us knowing that we're going to run," McDowell said. "We take it one week at a time."

Speed and Mike Bliss were the two drivers to race their way in through the second race. Bliss, so concerned with his own status, didn't even know who won his race.

"Nobody said nothing and I didn't ask," he said. "I just figured I would run as hard as I could and just whatever happens from there. But I really didn't want to know anything else. I really didn't want a lot of radio chatter."

It was a stark contrast to the disappointments of the day for Casey Mears and Reed Sorenson, two drivers who had full-time Cup rides with high-profile teams the last several seasons, only to lose their jobs because of economic issues. Both have a handful of races lined up for this season, and making the Daytona 500 could have created more opportunities.

"It's frustrating. I mean, I've never missed one," said Mears. "We tried as hard as we could."

Johnson, meanwhile, got a bit of peace heading into Sunday's race with his victory.

Even though he's the four-time defending NASCAR champion, he came to Daytona and admitted a fear he has of forgetting how to drive during the offseason.

A 13th-place finish in last week's exhibition Shootout didn't help. But the win over Shootout winner Harvick did.

"After the Shootout, I ran well at the start, then we started fading. Inside the car, I was just wondering if I lost my touch with restrictor-plate racing," Johnson said. "Stuff goes on in my head. Even though we won ... I don't win a lot on plate tracks, so I still feel like I'm learning. Today is a big step in that direction."

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