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Johnson, Kahne win qualifiers; Waltrip gets help
Kasey Kahne (9) races alongside Tony Stewart (14), winning the second Gatorade Duel qualifying auto race for the NASCAR Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010. (AP Photo/John Raoux)


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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Now that was some great racing.

NASCAR finally got the excitement it's been so desperately craving with two stirring battles to the finish in Thursday's two qualifying races for the Daytona 500. Jimmie Johnson nipped Kevin Harvick in a door-to-door battle across the finish line of the first qualifier, while Kasey Kahne edged Tony Stewart in the second race.

More drama played out off the track, as Michael Waltrip nervously watched the second qualifier to see if he'd get the help he needed to make what's expected to be the final Daytona 500 of his career. Waltrip wrecked in the first qualifier, and the two-time 500 winner watched from a television studio as Scott Speed used a late-race pass to earn the position needed to get Waltrip a spot in Sunday's race.

"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 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.

Johnson nipped Shootout winner Harvick by .005 seconds in the first race. Then Stewart aggressively moved Brian Vickers out of his way to grab the lead in the second race, only to be passed by Kahne for the victory. Kahne held off Stewart, who was running side-by-side, by .014 seconds.

The margin of victory was the second closest in a Daytona qualifier since NASCAR began using electronic scoring in 1993.