DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It was two close finishes and one close call for Michael Waltrip — exactly what NASCAR needed.
Two 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 so desperately craving.
Jimmie Johnson nipped Kevin Harvick by .005 seconds in the first race, then Kasey Kahne edged Tony Stewart by .014 seconds 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.
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"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, an Owensboro native and two-time Daytona 500 winner, had planned to make his final start at Daytona in Sunday's race. Only 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 cheered on 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."
That's exactly what NASCAR needs heading into its version of the Super Bowl.
The sport has been battered over the past few years by critics who argue the racing has grown stale and the drivers are too boring. A series of off-season changes to various rules, and an edict to the drivers to loosen up and show more personality, has created hope for some much-needed energy in NASCAR.
Kahne celebrated his first victory in any race at Daytona. Even better? He beat Stewart, a role model from their days racing sprint cars.
"I enjoy racing Tony because you know if you beat that guy, you've done something on that day," Kahne said. "He always seems to be at the front. Whenever I'm having a good day, he's always the guy there I actually have to beat."