Thursday was a day of redemption.
Not just for Michael Waltrip, but for NASCAR as a whole.
More specifically, for Daytona.
Speedweeks had started out fine, actually, and there was the typical slate of storylines to follow. And all seemed well throughout most of last Saturday night's less-than-compelling but still-entertaining Bud Shootout.
But then, so close to the finish, there was the last-turn wreck.
Call that a sign of things to come, as it only went downhill from there.
Thank you, Kenny Francis.
Here's to you, Robbie Reiser.
And a quick nod to you, Rodney Childers and Josh Brown.
And, of course, take a bow, Michael Waltrip and Co.
Instead of the focus being on the Daytona 500 and Thursday's qualifiers that would precede it, NASCAR became stuck – necessarily so – talking ad nauseum about cheating, fines, point penalties and suspensions.
Instead of wondering what might fuel Tony Stewart to his first Daytona 500 win, all anyone wanted to know was what was in the fuel of Waltrip's No. 55 car.
Instead of the pomp and circumstance of a new season being kicked off by the biggest event in racing – and one of the biggest sporting events in America, period, according to Forbes – NASCAR spent the better part of this week wiping mud off its face.
It's been a never-ending story – a nightmare – NASCAR could only wish was fiction.
But a better chapter finally was written Thursday, thanks largely to a disgraced driver/owner and a senior citizen, and also thanks in part to that guy from Formula One, some drivers who began the day just wanting a spot in the big show, and some of the sport's heaviest hitters.
Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon won Thursday's 150-mile qualifiers, but it was Michael Waltrip who went from villain to hero.
On the verge of packing up and going home following the strong penalties imposed by NASCAR after his team was caught cheating during qualifying, Waltrip instead wheeled out a backup car and took to the track.
Driving an untested car. Starting in the back of the field. Still slumping under the weight of one of the worst weeks of his NASCAR life.
Waltrip's prospects weren't good.
But there he went, showing that he hasn't lost his superspeedway prowess despite no longer having the power and know-how he enjoyed at DEI. There Waltrip drove, with the help of some pit strategy, to the front of the field, and suddenly a storybook ending – or at least a chapter – seemed to be writing itself.
Then he spun out his old teammate and drafting buddy Dale Earnhardt Jr., slightly damaging his own car in the process, knocking fan-favorite Junior off the lead lap.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse. Just when Waltrip couldn't be more of a villain.
But as the race went on, Waltrip rebounded and regained track position. And as Waltrip rebounded, something else was happening: Septuagenarian James Hylton, also buoyed by pit strategy, found himself within striking distance of making his first Daytona 500 in more than 20 years and becoming the oldest driver ever to start a Cup race.
This in a car which had shown little signs of life throughout Speedweeks and was way off the pace early in Thursday's first race.
And suddenly, this dark Daytona had some pretty bright storylines developing.
Sure, Hylton ultimately fell short, but he flirted until late and accomplished more than anyone – including himself – thought possible.
Waltrip, however, did not fall short.
Convicted cheater (or, to be fair, owner/driver for the convicted team) Waltrip became two-time Daytona 500 winner Waltrip, mastering the draft and driving to an eighth-place finish in his Duel to lead all drivers who had yet to secure a spot.
And with that finish came a starting spot of 15th in Sunday's race.
Though Waltrip was, appropriately, somber and humble after the race, he would have had every right to be jumping up and down, celebrating his comeback from disaster.
Same could be said for NASCAR officials, who also witnessed Stewart continue his Speedweeks dominance and Earnhardt Jr. rebound from that early spin to finish second.
Smoke and Junior and Mikey and James Hylton, giving NASCAR something to feel good about.
And this all from just the first of Thursday's races.
The second Duel was just icing on the cake.
There was Juan Pablo Montoya showing glimpses of brilliance (and promise of what's to come Sunday?) before tire and wheel problems sidelined him
There was what was a relatively uneventful race quickly becoming nail-bitingly intense as those on the outside looking in battled vehemently in the final laps for finishing spots good enough to put them in Sunday's show.
And there was Jeff Gordon not letting Smoke and Junior steal the day, blasting his way to the front (with a little help from his friends) after the white flag flew and winning Thursday's second Duel.
The Big Three (Gordon, Stewart, Earnhardt Jr.) don't need to win every race or, despite what some may say, make every Chase, but it certainly doesn't hurt for all three to put on a show – especially on the heels of the embarrassment the sport has endured this week.
(And yes, Gordon's car failed postrace inspection, forcing him to start at the rear of the 500 field, but NASCAR described the infraction as an "unintentional … part failure" meaning it's not at all comparable to the other missteps made last Sunday).
But on this day, after the week NASCAR has had, redemption stories like Waltrip's, Cinderella stories like Hylton's, star-power presence like that of the Big Three, and late-race drama of those who put everything they have into just getting a chance to race Sunday all was more than enough to make the NASCAR world look good again.
And enough action and excitement for fans to, certainly, not feel cheated.