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NASCAR#039;s Budweiser Shootout starts season off right

Don't fret, sports fans, just because the Super Bowl ended the NFL season this week because NASCAR returns this weekend with a jam-packed schedule of racing.

Saturday night, the annual Budweiser Shootout will take place under the lights at Daytona in what is sure to be a telling preview of what's to come during the 2007 season.

The Shootout is a 70-lap race featuring 21 drivers who either won a pole during the 2006 season or have won a Shootout race in a previous year.

This year's race will feature 15 drivers who won a pole last season and six who have won the Shootout before.

Winning a pole during the season is all well and good for the 48 hours a driver holds it before a race starts, but once the race is over, no one remembers who started first.

They only remember who finished first.

But it is this non-points race that gets the season going and rewards those drivers and teams with a money-only race.

Last year's Shootout was an exhilarating race, especially now that it is held under the lights, and rookie Denny Hamlin took home the checkered flag in just his first Cup race at the famed track.

While the Budweiser Shootout is a great spectator event, it is only a prelude to a full week of racing at its best.

The actual racing began last week with the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and has continued with testing.

The drawing for starting positions for the Shootout will be held Friday and even it will be televised.

The countdown to the 500 will begin Sunday with qualifying for The Great American Race.

Only the fastest two cars will be locked into the Daytona 500 and the remaining entrants will be forced to race their way into the race during next week's Gatorade Duel races.

The outcome of the Duels will determine starting spots 3-35 and the remaining eight spots in the 500 will be determined by qualifying speeds, past points provisionals and past champions provisionals.

Catch all that?

Good.

The Great American Race is more than just the start of the NASCAR season, it is the equivalent to the U.S. Open in golf in that it is the most democratic race of the entire season.

You earn your way in or you go home during the biggest race of the year.

It all starts Saturday night and I, for one, can't wait.

Austin Phillips is The Greenville Advocate sports editor.

You can contact him by e-mailing austin.phillips@greenvilleadvocate.com or by calling 382-3111 ext. 122.