By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If you're a NASCAR fan that watched Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, the troubled economy, millions of job layoffs and prospects of a continued dismal outlook hopefully faded from your thoughts for at least 2 ½ hours.
It was exactly what fans and NASCAR needed in these tough times, a great race with a wild finish that had people cheering and jumping out of their seats both at Daytona International Speedway and in front of their TV sets.
And while many of us will wake up Sunday and once again be reminded of our current fate and future, Saturday's race gave us high hopes that the on-track excitement will hopefully continue to take our minds off our troubles for the next 37 race weekends.
Kevin Harvick gave a textbook lesson in how to master the 2.5-mile, high-banked Daytona layout, coming from a 27th-place starting position in the 28-car field to capture his first Shootout win.
"They ought to cancel testing every year if you guys want to see a race like that," Harvick said. "That was a lot of built-up race car drivers that were looking for something to hang out on the edge, and I think everybody got a good show tonight."
In similar fashion to the way he won the 2007 Daytona 500 in a photo-finish over Mark Martin, Harvick paced himself, stayed mid-pack to keep out of trouble for much of the event, and then aggressively pushed his way through the pack in the closing laps to take the checkered flag.
"I think there's a lot of parallels to the way this race and (his win in the) 500 shook out," Harvick said. "We were just closer to the front on that last restart. I think we restarted sixth or seventh in the 500 and we were fourth tonight. But, it still worked out the same way. In the end, we were on the top and coming off turn 2 with a head of steam and we were able to clear a path there.
"I told them earlier that I guess if we're going to win, we've got to make it look dramatic. That's kind of been the way my whole career has been: we always seem to get there in the nick of time."
Added team owner Richard Childress, "For the fans, the price of admission tonight was well worth it. They saw a great race. To win any race at Daytona is great, and the way Kevin did it in style like he did in the 500 a couple years back, that's pretty cool."
While the 31st renewal of the Shootout was nothing more than a pre-season exhibition in base form, it was much more than just another race. Rather, it served as a great and exciting distraction of sorts for many fans who needed it so very much.
"I think it was big, obviously," said Tony Stewart, who finished third in his driving debut for his new team. "I think one of the funniest things I laughed about the whole day today, and as oddly as it's going to sound, when the National Anthem was going on and the (singer's microphone kept going in and out, it was like the crowd just picked it up from there and was singing the National Anthem and didn't miss a beat.
"You didn't care if her mic came back or not, bless her heart, but it was just one of those things, it was like, you know what, this sport's going to be alright. The fans were here, were pumped up about the Shootout. It made me smile, made me laugh and forget I was getting into my own race car for the first time.
"If that's any sign of what's to come with the economy and the fans, we have some dedicated fans. We've got fans that no matter what the circumstances are, they're going to raise to the occasion."
The win was Harvick's first since capturing the checkered flag in another exhibition event, the Sprint All-Star Race in May 2007, a little over three months after beating Martin in the Daytona 500 – his last "official" win in NASCAR annals.
As such, Harvick's win Saturday gives him a leg up on the competition for next Sunday's 51st running of the season-opening Daytona 500.
"This was a great spectator's race," Childress said. "It was just an all-around great evening. The 500's just about sold-out, I was told tonight. We've got 75 million race fans out there. They're going to watch racing at home. If they can't come to the race, they're going to be watching it. And the ones that can come, they got to see a great race tonight and I think they'll see a great 500, also."
All may not be well with the world around us as a whole, but if the Shootout was any indication, there may be a lot better with stock car racing than many of us thought coming into Saturday night.
"I think a great positive came out of tonight," Harvick said. "I think the fans are going to be pumped up, the drivers are pumped up to do whatever we can and just excited to be part of the sport right now."
Even if it's just for a few hours each Saturday or Sunday, if looking forward to the next race on the schedule helps us forget about our own personal challenges and tough times, isn't that a big part of what sports and entertainment is supposed to do for us in the first place?