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Good racing may return

If the quality of racing over the past week in Daytona is any indication, we are in for a fun and very competitive season.

From the Bud Shootout and the duel races on Thursday afternoon, the changes initiated by NASCAR to increase the competition have worked.

Qualifying for the pole and outside pole positions was held last Saturday with Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. locking in the top two spots. Kevin Harvick won a second consecutive Bud Shootout last Saturday night in a pretty darn good race.

And both of the duel qualifying races Thursday had great finishes along with back-and-forth racing the entire 60 laps.

Jimmie Johnson edged Kevin Harvick in the first race to earn the third starting position in the Daytona 500. Kasey Kahne squeaked by Tony Stewart in the second race and will start Sunday’s race in the fourth starting spot.

To start the race Sunday, you’ll find the usual list of suspects at the top of the list, but some big names missed the race and some no-so-big names raced their way onto the starting lineup.

Casey Mears, David Gilliland and Reed Sorenson were among the 11 drivers that failed to qualify for the race. Robert Richardson Jr., Max Papis, Michael McDowell and Mike Bliss are among the not-as-familiar drivers that will deliver big purse checks to their car owners. Just to make the race, the payouts begin at $250,000.

Michael Waltrip, in perhaps the final Daytona 500 of his career, wrecked in the first qualifying race and his hopes of making the show looked dim. But, the finishing order of the second race propelled Waltrip to the 43rd and final starting spot.

Waltrip was forced to race his way in because his 2009 owners’ points reverted to Martin Truex Jr. Waltrip is racing in a third Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, the No. 51 sponsored by NAPA.

The Nationwide Series race on Saturday will garner much more attention than usual this year because of the addition of Danica Patrick to the field. After earning a passing grade during her stock car debut in the ARCA race last weekend, the decision was made to enter Patrick into this week’s race.

With Tony Eury Jr. as her crew chief and in a JR Motorsports car, Patrick will have every opportunity to put up a good showing during this race where a more than typical amount of cup drivers will be competing. It’s essentially a cup race.

But, if she is involved in a big wreck, especially if she’s the cause of a big wreck, get ready for a huge amount of second-guessing.

Remember, this race is the first for NASCAR’s new practice of consistent starting times. With a start time of 1 p.m. EST, the race will end in daylight, unlike the past several years when the race ran into the twilight.

My pick to win this race, and my pick to have a monster season in 2010, is Kasey Kahne in the new Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.