Pinch-me moments plentiful at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- I've always said hard times mean good times in NASCAR. Never has that been reaffirmed more than on Thursday.

Hard as times are in the grandstands this week, the good times go on in the garage area. And the heartwarming moments are more precious.

Walking the pit road before Thursday's twin 150-mile qualifying races, scanning the grandstands, was sad. No section was even close to being packed. Some sections had only scattered smatterings of fans. I'd never seen so many empty seats for the Duels.

And yet here's Danica Patrick being received by NASCAR drivers much more warmly, respectfully and helpfully than she was in 2005 by the IndyCar drivers, who were cool toward her, even rude.

And here's the lovable Italian import from open wheel, Max Papis, getting hugs from Mark Martin, who seemed even more overjoyed that Papis made it into the Daytona 500 in the first qualifier than Papis himself was -- Papis' tears of joy notwithstanding.

"I just want to be called 'Mad Max, the Italian NASCAR driver,'" he said. Everybody doesn't like some NASCAR driver. But nobody doesn't like Mad Max.

Here's the long-suffering Michael Waltrip, at sundown of a rocky career, pumping a fist upon making the 500 field for what likely will be his last one, by a whisker of a technicality. He wrecked in the first race but was bequeathed a berth when Scott Speed raced his way into the 500 in the second qualifier and left one last time-trial berth open for Waltrip.

Legions of NASCAR's fans are still broke from the economic plummet, but legions more have grown disillusioned with the state and style of current NASCAR racing. So it's hard to gauge which factor was responsible for the more empty seats on Thursday.

But give NASCAR this: It's throwing the kitchen sink into juicing up the show, from bigger restrictor plates and freeing drivers to bump and race, to changing the cars ASAP, to welcoming Danica genuinely.

The racing in the qualifiers was pretty good. Not a lot of action for the races traditionally touted as the wildest of Speedweeks, but better than the ride-arounds these races had become in recent years.

Back was the win by a bumper -- rather, by a splitter in current parlance. That's how much Jimmie Johnson beat Kevin Harvick by in the first one.

The first thought when NASCAR said it was going to let the drivers bump-draft and police themselves was that they'd go wild. In actuality, they're policing themselves as well as or better than the officials did. So things aren't crazy out on the track.

The glorious slingshot pass of yore -- the kind of maneuver that took NASCAR to national popularity in the first place -- took a peek out of history into the future at one point during the second race, when Juan Pablo Montoya passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead.

The slingshot is sure to flower this spring after decades of dormancy, especially on the plate tracks, when the ill-advised wings are abandoned in favor of good old, common-sense spoilers. From what drivers and builders have told me throughout the advent of the Cup car, the slingshot already would be back if NASCAR hadn't digressed to the brief era of the wing.

Closing velocity already has been quickened with the bigger plates here, and with a spoiler it will be blink-of-an-eye.

Pity they couldn't have opened the season with spoilers right out of the gate, for the showcase race, but they just didn't think they could take that plunge safely.

When Danica arrived in the IRL in 2005, her fellow drivers were arrogant, resentful, exuding the notion that they didn't need her and that she was taking attention away from the real racing.

But these guys know that in these hard times, they need her star power and they need it bad. So does the NASCAR administration. So with every gesture, they all show they're as grateful to her as she is to them. This is going to be a happy marriage, long-lasting.

They just plain like her. They really do.

"I've been very overwhelmed ... with how many drivers have come forward and said they would help me out," Danica said Thursday. Then she rolled off a Who's Who list of those who've spent significant time advising her: Tony Stewart ... Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus ... her car owner, Earnhardt, of course ...

Just about to a man in the garage, they want her to succeed. And of course her bosses, Earnhardt and his sister Kelley, have been giddy as kids since she wowed the crowd in the ARCA race Saturday night, and they were restoked Thursday when she was fifth-fastest in Nationwide practice.

They respect her as a fast learner through hard work. Outside the car, she's been soaking up the savvy of this entire realm like a sponge.

"I love the racing," Danica said. "I love [that] there's side-by-side. Not only is it fun for the drivers, but it's fun for the fans, too. And they're important."

And there it is: savvy of the need to entertain the spectator, savvy of what she can bring to NASCAR, savvy of how far NASCAR can take her.

Yet Danica won't be wooed entirely away from IndyCar any time soon. Driving both is "like having two kids: I can't pick."

But she has been dazzled by the vaster media coverage here.

"I like that we're on TV all the time," Danica said. "The fans can really develop their own storylines for what's going on out there, pick their favorites, learn the personalities. That's really cool."

If she thinks it's cool now, in these hardest times for NASCAR in many a year, wait'll she gets a load of it when it flowers in the spring.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.