NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing returns Saturday night with the 31st annual Budweiser Shootout At Daytona -- the non-points precursor to the season-opening Daytona 500 -- and it couldn't come soon enough for me.

In the words of Darrell Waltrip, who will return as a commentator on FOX: "Boogity, boogity, boogity -- let's go racing, boys!"

Yes, I know the Shootout is only an exhibition race, but it will be our first chance to see Waltrip's "boys" competing at Daytona International Speedway this year. The race distance has been increased from 70 laps to 75 laps, a total of 1871/2 miles on the high-banked, 21/2-mile layout.

Here's how it will work: the event will be run in two segments. Following the first segment of 25 laps, a 10-minute "pit stop" gives crews the opportunity to make normal adjustments to their cars. All work must be done on pit road or in the garage and teams may not change springs, shocks or rear-ends. All green- and yellow-flag laps in both segments will count. Following the 10-minute "pit stop," the event's second segment is a 50-lap sprint for the win. Starting positions are determined by a draw.

The field is being set in a different way this year, pulling the top six teams from each manufacturer based on the final 2008 car-owner standings. That's a big change from the way the race originated, open only to drivers who had won a pole in the previous season or had previously won the Shootout.

A complicated "wild card" entry was recently added which will make Tony Stewart fans especially happy. The wild card allows a manufacturer to place a past Sprint Cup champion not otherwise qualified into the event, and Stewart gained entry that way. This year's 28-team Shootout field is the largest in history.
Mark Martin has appeared in the most consecutive Shootouts, competing in 20 straight events from 1989-2008, but he will not compete in this year's race. Jeff Gordon will take over the active lead in consecutive Shootouts with 16.

Buddy Baker (1979), Dale Earnhardt (1980), Jeff Gordon (1994), Dale Jarrett (1996) and Denny Hamlin (2006) all won the first Shootout in which they competed.

Only five times in the history of the race has the winner gone on to win the Daytona 500: Bobby Allison (1982), Bill Elliott (1987), Dale Jarrett (1996 and 2000) and Jeff Gordon (1997). There have been three winners from the pole: Darrell Waltrip (1981), Bill Elliott (1987) and Ken Schrader (1989).

The 2009 field includes five former Daytona 500 champions -- including three-time winner Jeff Gordon, two-time winner Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

Ellen Siska writes about NASCAR for The York Dispatch. She can be reached at esiska@yorkdispatch.com.