Photo by J Pat Carter

Photo by J Pat Carter

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael Waltrip bounded across a crowded room to reach Scott Speed, reaching out to hug his fellow driver.

Without Speed's help, Waltrip would have missed what's supposed to be the final Daytona 500 of his career.

The two-time race winner watched nervously from a bank of television monitors as Speed trudged around the track in his Thursday qualifying race, anxiously hoping Speed would grab a finish high enough to help Waltrip make the 500 under the race's complicated system for setting the field.

With a late pass, Speed did it, and Waltrip was in Sunday's race.

"To try to remain calm and watch that was as hard as anything I've ever done," Waltrip said. "To watch it work out right, it was better than hitting the lottery."

Speed was happy to help.

"I'm glad I was able to get him in that race," Speed said. "I think the big man deserves to be in it."

The off-track drama, coupled with two exciting finishes in the qualifying races, was exactly the boost NASCAR needed as it heads into its biggest event of the year.

Jimmie Johnson nipped Kevin Harvick by 0.005 seconds in the first race, then Kasey Kahne edged Tony Stewart by 0.014 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.

"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.

After wrecking out of the first race Waltrip retreated to a television studio to watch his fate unfold in the second qualifier.

"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."

NASCAR hopes he's right.

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 offseason 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.

The tinkering continued all the way up to Thursday's races, too. After a unsatisfying end under caution to last week'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 race 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 certainly 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."

Johnson won his qualifying race in his backup car and needing pit strategy to get to the front. He stayed on the track when almost everyone else pitted for the final time. Although he inherited the lead, he had Harvick and Clint Bowyer -- teammates at Richard Childress Racing -- and feisty Kyle Busch behind him trying to grab the win away.

Crew chief Chad Knaus settled in for the show, confident the most dominant driver in NASCAR could finish the job.

"We were going to go for the win. Whether that was him putting himself in a position to go for it, or something we had to do to make it happen," Knaus said. "I think he did a fantastic job of blocking those guys. He had two teammates behind him and a very aggressive Kyle Busch behind him, and he was able to hold them off.

"I think that speaks volumes about how good the car is and what a good restrictor plate racer Jimmie is."

Kahne, meanwhile, 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."