Let's go racing - it's time for the Budweiser Shootout!

It's been a long off-season for NASCAR fans - no race to speak of since the Ford 400 at Homestead in November. I know I was one of many counting down the days until Speedweeks. But tonight, the Sprint Cup engines will roar back to life with the 32nd running of the Budweiser Shootout.

The Shootout may be a non-points race, but something even more important may be at stake: bragging rights. Who'll start the season in Victory Lane?

This year the qualifying criteria for the Budweiser Shootout were reset. The 2010 field was determined by:
  • The 12 drivers who qualified for the previous year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
  • Past NASCAR Sprint Cup champions.
  • Past Budweiser Shootout champions.
  • Past Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 champions.
  • The reigning Raybestos Rookie of the Year.
The new rules allow drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Rookie of the Year Joey Logano, Michael Waltrip, Bobby Labonte and Kenny Schrader to compete in the 24-car field. The criteria is more fan-friendly than in past years, which in my opinion makes sense for an exhibition race. And considering the personalities and talents of those drivers, it'll also make it more fun.

The driver benefiting the most from the rule changes is Earnhardt Jr. After a debacle of a season in 2009, the seven-time Most Popular Driver winner is looking for redemption. To turn the team's performance around for 2010, the 88 crew made some changes in the shocks and engineering departments during the off-season and is said to be working closely with the 5 team of Mark Martin. What also strikes me as a good sign is that in the interviews I've seen with Earnhardt Jr. from the Daytona Fan Fest and this week at NASCAR Media Day, Junior's smile and confidence have returned. I haven't seen my favorite driver this upbeat in a long time. A good finish at the Shootout could bring Junior and the 88 team the momentum they need to start the new season off on the right foot.

The Shootout will also be a memorable race for fans of Michael Waltrip. After 24 years of full-time racing in Cup, the co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing is scaling back to a limited schedule. The second - and possibly last - Cup race Waltrip will compete in this season is next week's Daytona 500. The two-time Daytona 500 winner has been in talks with Billy Ballew about running some races in the Camping World Truck Series. However, it's strange to think of NASCAR and not have a Waltrip driving in it full-time. Personally I'd like to see him run a few more Cup races in 2010.

And who isn't looking forward to seeing Schrader race in Sprint Cup again? The NASCAR veteran worked out a deal with Red Bull Racing to drive the No. 82 Toyota in tonight's Shootout. The last time we saw Shrader in a Cup car was the November 2008 race at Phoenix. Welcome back Kenny!

These are only a few of the storylines hovering around tonight's race. If your driver is competing tonight, you may be watching to see his first race in a new ride, with a new sponsor, a new crew chief or an injury sustained in the off-season, or whether he'll tangle with anyone who gave him trouble last year. A few other things I'll be looking out for are: What kind of bumpin' and bangin' will we see as drivers get to "have at it"? Will a new rivalry be born? When we will see the first wreck - and who'll be left unscathed when the smoke clears?

We'll get our chance to find out tonight at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.

I'm so excited, I'll admit it: When Darryl Waltrip says "Boogity, boogity, boogity! Let's go racing," I'll be saying it right along with him!

2010 Budweiser Shootout Starting Lineup

1. Carl Edwards
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Brian Vickers
4. Ryan Newman
5. Greg Biffle
6, Mark Martin
7. Jeff Burton
8. Matt Kenseth
9. Jamie McMurray
10. John Andretti
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
12. Bobby Labonte
13. Tony Stewart
14. Ken Schrader
15. Michael Waltrip
16. Jimmie Johnson
17. Kyle Busch
18. Derrike Cope
19. Kasey Kahne
20. Juan Pablo Montoya
21. Joey Logano
22. Kurt Busch
23. Jeff Gordon
24. Denny Hamlin
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Photo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. from Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway on Flickr:
Photo of Michael Waltrip from pamarama73 on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pamarama73/ / CC BY 2.0
Let's go racing - it's time for the Budweiser Shootout! Let's go racing - it's time for the Budweiser Shootout! Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Saturday, February 06, 2010 Rating: 5