After taking two days off while the track was "dark", I resume my look ahead at the Daytona 500. Today, an in-depth view on Thursday's Duel 150 qualifying races, and what we know so far.
After Sunday’s qualifying for the 51st Daytona 500, there are a few things we know, and some we don’t.
Forty-three cars will take the green flag on Sunday. Of those 43, 35 slots are already filled by drivers in the top-35 of owner points from last year–which at this point has me baffled to no end with all the points-swapping, partnerships, and purchases that have taken place–right up until the past week or so.
Of the remaining eight starting positions, four will be filled Thursday, as the top-two drivers finishing each “Duel 150” qualifying races that are not in the top-35 will punch their ticket.
Beyond that, the four fastest drivers from Sunday’s qualifying that are not already in the race based on owner points or their finish in the Duels will receive a spot.
But wait, there’s more!
There are three former champions vying for starting spots but not guaranteed one – well, except Tony Stewart. He is first in line for the Past Champion’s Provisional, Terry Labonte is second, and Bill Elliott is third (the most recent champ has dibs) and thus will start 43rd at worst.
All that being said, the one thing that we know is that Martin Truex, Jr. and Mark Martin will start on the front row…Unless one of them drops a motor or crashes his primary car later this week, then they’ll have to fall to the back. This will be Martin’s (Mark that is) first time on row one at Daytona.
We already knew they were in the race, since both are in the top-35 in owner points from last season. As long as they keep their noses clean, they’ll lead the field to the green flag on Sunday.
Qualifying also showed that Bill Elliott has the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford up to speed, and will be in the show. Additionally, Travis Kvapil–who somehow lost his ride through the financial meltdown and mergers by Yates Racing, will be in, as will Tony Stewart.
Since both Bill Elliott and Tony Stewart set times Sunday that will guarantee a chance to race in the 500, that opened up the Past-Champion’s Provisional for Terry Labonte. Should he not finish among the top-two in either race Thursday, and I wouldn’t look for him to do so–rather get some track time, save the car and avoid a big wreck, he will take the eighth of the available starting spots and roll off 43rd.
Kvapil and Stewart should be no surprise to anyone, as Yates and Hendrick cars have proven to be speed machines on restrictor-plate tracks. I know Stewart is in a start-up deal, but he’s really not. The Haas team is one that’s been around. Darian Grubb–who ran the pits for Jimmie Johnson in his 2006 Daytona 500 win while Chad Knaus was suspended–can get the job done, and it’s Tony Stewart.
Stewart being back in a bowtie is like handing a sober Frenchman a bottle of fine wine–they’re both very happy campers.
Travis Kvapil did a bang-up job last season in his Yates Racing car with part-time sponsorship. He managed to stay out of trouble and bring the cars home, which is very helpful when you’re an under-funded team. Travis started in all 36 races, yet he completed 98 percent of the laps he ran, which is a testament to the job he did–even if he averaged a 23rd place finish.
There are currently 34 driver “cards” on NASCAR.com, for those with full-time rides this season. This tells me Kvapil has been overlooked, as he did better than one-third of them.
The guys who will have to race their way in, or hope that Elliott, Kvapil, Stewart, and Labonte do, include Regan Smith (14th in qualifying), Joe Nemechek (19th), and Boris Said (20th).
I would think Smith will be in good shape. I see Stewart finishing up front in the first duel, and thus opening the door for last year’s Rookie Of the Year. More importantly, Smith is in the second race, whereas Elliott, Stewart, and Labonte are in the first one. This means all three of the past champions will be out of the way.
Smith lost his ride with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. but has signed on with Furniture Row Racing to run a part-time schedule in ’09. Smith, like Stewart, is running Hendrick Motorsports equipment, and the FRR guys have a good history on plate-tracks when Joe Nemechek was at the helm of the 78.
“Front-Row” Joe will then be next up for a slot, and has to hope that Elliott and Kvapil take one of the available four spots from the Duels. Running his own NEMCO Motorsports team, Nemechek is driving second-hand Red Bull equipment, which should fare pretty well for him. But he’s in the first race as well, so he’ll be looking to finish ahead of the 21 or 14 cars, and that will put him in the show. He’ll have to keep an eye in the mirror, as Scott Riggs, John Andretti, and Brad Keselowski will be trying to race their way through the pack.
That brings us to a guy who’s arguably a fan favorite. But only shows up for Daytona, Talladega, and the road courses–Boris Said. He has a history of being fast on plate tracks, but not being able to bring the car home for one reason or another. Running a Roush-prepared machine, Boris is going to break through hopefully sooner rather than later, because at 46, he’s not really in a position to land a full-time ride with a top-notch team.
Boris is in the second race, and will have to get by either Smith or Kvapil to make the field. This is the safer field–for of the top-18 starters, only Smith, Kvapil, and Said are not locked in. Kvapil can afford to let Boris by, but Smith can’t. A.J. Almendinger had a pretty-good run in the Bud Shootout, finishing fifth, but high attrition was a factor and shouldn’t be discounted.
When it comes down to it, the smart guys in the top-35 of owner points would be wise to hang back and hope they can drive around trouble in their duel race. Unless of course they can get out front and stay there. But that’s a tall order at Daytona–and racers love to race, regardless of what may be on the line.
I would look to make an agreement with several guys that we’re just going to lay back, draft, and see how the car works in that situation. Let the “Go or go home” crowd race and knock each other out of the fray.
Because if there's one thing we know so far based on Speedweeks 2009, it's that the "Big One" isn't just talk to draw attention-it is inevitable.
Tomorrow I'll roll out my interview with the voice of ESPN's NASCAR play-by-play: Doctor Jerry Punch, and get his take on the latest with the sport.