The Frontstretch: The Top 35 Battle Begins At Daytona: Three More In, Four To Go by Mike Lovecchio -- Sunday February 11, 2007

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The Top 35 Battle Begins At Daytona: Three More In, Four To Go

On The Edge : Nextel Cup's Battle To Stay In The Top 35 · Mike Lovecchio · Sunday February 11, 2007

 

Whether you like it or not, the Top 35 in car owner points from last season are now locked into the field for the 49th Annual Daytona 500. While those teams can rest easy, the rest find themselves a nervous wreck from the minute they arrive in Florida. With Toyota stepping into the NASCAR's elite series, Thursday's Gatorade Duel 150’s may end up being more important than the Great American Race itself for them and a certain number of other teams, all of whom are just trying to start the season with their heads above water.

Three of those drivers who were sweating bullets can now relax; they qualified their way into the field Sunday afternoon, leaving 22 drivers fighting for just four spots (Dale Jarrett is guaranteed a spot based on the past champion's provisional). With just an 18% probability left for these men to make the field, that’s going to lead to a lot of anxious moments in the days ahead.

Let’s take a closer look at what teams are guaranteed a spot in the Great American Race, along with which teams will need a big day on Thursday in order to have a chance:

Phew! We Made It

Boris Said: No. 60 (qualified 6th overall): Nobody in the Nextel Cup garage area was happier than Said, who posted the quickest lap of all the go-or-go-homers. After sitting on the pole for the 2006 Pepsi 400, Said held his own with the big boys in the race, nearly bringing home the win before settling for 4th. This time around, he can focus on gaining some valuable drafting experience in the 150s while preparing for his first Daytona 500.

Sterling Marlin: No. 14 (qualified 8th overall): Bobby Ginn's No. 14 entry fell one spot short from clinching a starting spot in the first five races when it finished 36th in car owner points in 2006 with Marlin behind the wheel. With the two-time 500 winner now solidly in the show along with veteran teammate Mark Martin, Ginn must now focus on trying to get rookie Regan Smith (25th fastest) and Joe Nemechek (45th fastest) into the starting lineup as well.

Johnny Sauter: No. 70 (qualified 9th overall): Give a hand to Robert "Bootie" Barker. As we all know, qualifying at Daytona has everything to do with the car instead of the driver, and the veteran crew chief and occasional SPEED TV analyst held up his end of the bargain and got Sauter into the show. Debuting Gene Haas’ new second Nextel Cup team, it's now up to Sauter to keep the car off the wall.

A Big Day For Toyota?

With just two Toyotas guaranteed a spot in the field – Dale Jarrett (past champion’s provisional) and Dave Blaney (car owner points) – six more will need success during the Duels in order to make the 500. Among those in desperate need of good runs on Thursday are former Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip, past Nextel Cup winners Jeremy Mayfield and Brian Vickers, and rookies David Reutimann and A.J. Allmendinger.

Here's a look at the remaining Toyota entries:

David Reutimann: No. 00 (qualified 14th overall): A surprising face leads the rest of the Toyota brigade… but a lack of experience may hurt him in the end.
Jeremy Mayfield: No. 36 (15th): Consistently the fastest Toyota in practice, and may have the best shot at representing the manufacturer on Sunday.
Mike Skinner: No. 23 (17th): Led Bill Davis Racing in the Truck Series and will run strong again in the Duels; he’s raced into the 500 before.
Michael Waltrip: No. 55 (24th): Two-time Daytona 500 champ has the experience, but does he have the equipment?
A.J. Allmendinger: No. 84 (38th): Least experience of all the Toyota drivers…don't put your money on him.
Brian Vickers: No. 83 (43rd): Bad in qualifying, but led a few laps in the Bud Shootout and won at Talladega last season, so don't count him out.

The Best Of The Rest

As usual, there are a number of compelling underdog stories heading into the Gatorade Duel at Daytona. 72-year old James Hylton is trying to become the oldest driver to qualify for a NASCAR race, while former championship winning crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine will try to make the 500 with his unsponsored No. 27, just like he did in 2006. Both are feel good stories, but count them out for Sunday, as their cars appear to be outmatched.

Here's a look at the other notable entries:

Regan Smith: No. 39 (25th): Solid effort in qualifying may be a sign of an upset bid.
Ward Burton: No. 4 (30th): Experience may propel former 500 champ into the show.
Paul Menard: No. 15 (31st): DEI car should be stout.
Kenny Wallace: No. 78 (44th): Fan favorite, but that won't mean anything on race day.
Joe Nemecheck: No. 13 (45th): Good car, good driver, good shot.
Mike Wallace: No. 09 (59th): Problems in qualifying, but James Finch’s car will always be very strong.

Any race at Daytona is a crapshoot, and anything can and probably will happen on Thursday. Unfortunately, for the majority of these drivers mentioned, they will leave the Duels without a shot at racing on Sunday; but even a DNQ isn’t a season-killer. While making the 500 field will give any team a shot in the arm for the next four races, Scott Riggs proved last season that missing the field isn't the end of the world when he fought back into the Top 35 in car owner points.

The Daytona 500 is just the first race in what is a mini five race season for those on the outside of the Top 35, but nonetheless, it's still the biggest race of the year. With so much at stake, Thursday should be one of the most memorable Gatorade Duel 150’s in recent memory.

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