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Budweiser Shootout more than a simple exhibition

This time a year ago, Mark Martin was the most miserable driver in the Sprint Cup Series.

Martin had just joined Hendrick Motorsports, so he had a little extra pep in his step, a bit of swagger to his usually calm demeanor, or as much swagger as a 50-year-old man with a bad back could have.

But on Feb. 7 of last year, there Martin sat in the Sprint Cup garage, sulking.

Martin was in a sour mood because 28 drivers were about to take the green flag for the Budweiser Shootout and for the first time in 20 years, Mark Martin wasn't in the field.

"I was miserable," Martin said. "It really bothered me bad not to be in it."

Missing the Budweiser Shootout usually means either you didn't have a very good season the year before or you have never won at Daytona. Martin missed it last year because he had run only a part-time schedule in 2008 and didn't win a race or a pole.

He's back in it this year based on making the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, when he won five races.

The Shootout used to be only for drivers who won a pole the previous season, but NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway have tweaked the rules the past two years to create a more star-studded field.

This year it features the 12 Chase drivers from last season plus past champions and past winners of the Daytona 500 and the 400-mile race at Daytona in July.

The Shootout is one of the most exciting races of the year for two reasons: One, it is the first Cup race of the season, the first chance drivers have to climb into their cars for competition since last year's season finale at Homestead; and two, it is a 75-lap shootout with no points on the line, which usually leads to some spectacular racing and fireworks.

Martin, who has 40 career Cup victories, had raced in the event every year since 1989 until missing it last year. He won it in 1999.

He actually raced in it for the first time in 1982 after winning his first career pole in 1981.

He still remembers the thrill of racing against stars like Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Bobby Allison, and finishing eighth in the 13-car field.

"I think it is awesome," he says of the season-opening event. "I don't know for sure if it has the same luster as it had back [then]. ... The year I was in it in 1982, I think there were only 13 cars. It was very, very elite. It has lost some of its elite status, but it is a darn good way to start off our season."

It can also be an advantage for the drivers in it.

With no preseason testing at Daytona for the second straight year, drivers and teams have not tested their restrictor-plate cars and have not raced them since October at Talladega.

There is also little track time between Daytona 500 qualifying Saturday and the 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday, giving drivers and teams in the Shootout an advantage going into next week.

"With the limited track time you get, that is a critical race to be in," Martin said. "I was miserable not getting that track time last year."

The drivers in the race Saturday night will have a much better understanding about how their cars are handling with this year's rules, including a larger restrictor plate, and any new aerodynamic and technological advances they may have made.

"Every minute you have to be on the race track is important from a testing and teamwork standpoint, to get a head start before the 150s and the 500," 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman said.

"There's no substitute for track time," said Tony Stewart, Newman's teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing.

"I'm not going to say it's an advantage, but it's sure not a disadvantage to be able to run the Shootout. There is some things you can learn from that that you won't learn in practice, particularly on tire wear more than anything."

The Shootout will also be the first race at Daytona since NASCAR implemented its hands-off approach to bump-drafting, which could make all the races at Daytona much more physical and much more exciting.

"I'm ready to go. I can't wait to strap in and go," driver Greg Biffle said. "That's what this is gonna be about.

"We never really bump drafted in the corner here that much ... but this is always good racing."

It's even better in a shootout-style event in which drivers race all-out for 75 laps and can let it all hang out without worrying about points or destroying their best car.

For Martin, there is no better way to open the season.

"Don't forget, this is NASCAR. If there was a better way of doing it, they probably would already be doing it," he says. "Yeah, I love the Shootout."