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Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne win qualifying races at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH — 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 has been so desperately craving.

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.

Johnson's margin of victory was the second-closest finish in a Daytona 500 qualifier since the advent of the electronic timing system in 1993.

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

"I hope it says that we can win the Daytona 500, and to take us seriously," Johnson said. "I don't think I've been proving myself on (restrictor-plate tracks) since the COT (Car of Tomorrow) has been around. … I think things are coming together."

There was more drama off the track, as well.

Waltrip, a two-time winner of the 500, 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.

He needed Bobby Labonte or Scott Speed to grab one of the "transfer" spots — eight places reserved for those who didn't finish among the top 35 in last season's owner points. So Waltrip settled into Speed Channel's television studio to watch the second race on a slew of monitors.

Waltrip cheered as Speed used a late-race pass that helped him make the 500 as the last drivers to make it on his qualifying time. Waltrip is scheduled to race just twice this year — at Daytona and Talladega, the tracks where he has earned all four of his Sprint Cup victories — so he can devote full attention to owning Michael Waltrip Racing.

"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 of late 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.

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

Though he's the four-time defending Sprint Cup 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 Thursday he won in his backup car and used pit strategy from crew chief Chad Knaus to get to the front. He stayed on the track when almost everyone else pitted for the final time, and held off Harvick on old tires.

Kahne, meanwhile, celebrated his first win 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."

Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne win qualifying races at Daytona 02/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 11:27pm]

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