Harvick smiling again after Shootout win

2/7/2010 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- On a cool Saturday night when everybody seemed happy about everything, from the style of racing to the way the cars handled to even the Goodyear tires, it seemed appropriate that a driver nicknamed "Happy" won.

And he did.

Kevin "Happy" Harvick, who didn't run a practice lap because of flu-like symptoms that had him tossing up everything in his stomach on Thursday, on Saturday became the fourth driver to capture consecutive Budweiser Shootouts.

The driver of Richard Childress Racing's No. 29 Chevrolet took the lead on the first lap of a green-white-checkered finish and then coasted the final lap under caution after Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon triggered a multicar wreck.

Yep, there was a wreck at the end.

And it was triggered by aggressive bump-drafting from Gordon, who said he was trying to push Biffle to the win.

NASCAR, hoping to revitalize interest in the sport, said, "have at it boys," and the boys did.

It wasn't a wreckfest, mind you. But there was plenty of the bumping and grinding that the fans say they've been missing and that NASCAR spent the past few years trying to temper.

"I was on edge from the beginning," second-place finisher Kasey Kahne said. "I felt it was on from the time the green flag came out. ... I was getting hit and I was hitting cars."

Kyle Busch said it was out of control, but drivers "just kept it in control."

But nobody was happier with the way the race went than Harvick. After a disastrous 2009 season in which he switched crew chiefs, failed to win a points race and reportedly asked out of the final year of his contract, he needed to start off with something good.

It didn't look like such a good start on Thursday, when Harvick missed NASCAR media day and both practices and had to go to a backup car because Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer wrecked his primary.

But with color back in his face, it was obvious from the start of Saturday's race that Harvick had the "rocket" to beat. He led 21 laps with speed and handling he seldom had a year ago, even when he won this race.

"I don't know how fast we were going, but it sure felt like we were going fast compared to normal," Harvick said. "The cars felt fast, but they also were very forgiving. I could be aggressive with my car. Even when we got sideways I could stay on the gas."

Give some credit to NASCAR, which came to Daytona with a bigger restrictor plate to give cars more power after offseason adjustments to the car created more drag.

The governing body also stayed to its word and let the drivers police the bump-drafting they reinstated after outlawing most of it last fall at Talladega Superspeedway.

Also give credit to RCR, which carried over the improvement it made the final eight weeks of last season.

"It's good for our particular group," Harvick said. "A few of us have won before, but never [as this group]. For us to win together, it gives us that team bonding and a little swagger where everybody knows you can win."

You had a tough time finding anybody who wasn't happy. Even Kurt Busch, who took a wild slide through the infield and made his second trip to the care center this weekend after a bump from Mark Martin, was in a joking mood.

"I'm just making more laps in the ambulance than I am on the track," he said with a chuckle.

It's easy to make jokes when there's nothing on the line except pride and money, when it's the start of a new season and the pressures of a points battle haven't begun.

That all will change on Thursday, when everybody but Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who claimed the front row of the Daytona during Saturday's qualifying, fights for positions in the qualifying races.

It'll get real serious next Sunday, when the first points of the season are on the line. We'll see then if the aggression remains, if drivers continue to have at it and police themselves as NASCAR has asked.

We'll see if everybody stays happy and continues to remain as loose as Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin were after taking the checkered.

"I hate to think you're going to be that sick every week," Martin joked.

Replied Harvick, "I guess we could skip practice."

Harvick knows from winning this race a year ago and the events that led to this race that a lot can change during Speedweeks. He knows that conditions will change drastically once the competition moves to daylight when the track will become hot and slick.

But for now he is happy.

Everybody seems to be.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.