Welcome to the newest FS Column for 2006, simply known as the Top 35: Who’s In, Who’s Out. Every week, this column will look at the battle for the Top 35 in points and the guaranteed starting spots that come with it in that week’s upcoming race. At the start of the season, the first five races are set by the final standings of 2005. After the Spring Bristol race in March, the standings for the current race season will then be used to determine the 35 cars locked into the field. Needless to say, there will be a lot of jockeying for position in 2006 to be one of those Top 35 teams when the sixth race comes around, and Frontstretch will be there to cover the drama, every step of the way!
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 utilizes a unique format. The starting positions on the front row are determined during timed qualifying. The remaining starting positions are set through two qualifying races (the Gatorade Duels) that will take place on Thursday, February 16th. The cars that compete in the Duels are determined by last year’s final owner point standings. Those owners who finished in even numbered positions will run in the second of the Duels, with the odd numbered finishers running in the first. The starting positions for those races are determined by the qualifying speeds that were set in qualifying on Sunday, the 12th.
This is where it gets interesting. For those drivers who are not locked into the Top 35 in owners’ points, they are left racing for four starting spots. The top three qualifying speeds for non-Top 35 drivers are locked into the race. The three locked in this year are:
#36-Bill Elliott, 187.715 #32-Travis Kvapil, 187.106 #00-Hermie Sadler, 187.025
By virtue of being the most recent past Cup Champion, #96-Terry Labonte is locked into the race with the past Champion’s provisional starting position, even though his qualifying time was disallowed.
With the Top 35 locked in on points and four locked in by qualifying, that leaves us four positions that are available for non-Top 35 drivers. With two qualifying races, the spots are evenly divided, so the top two finishing non-Top 35 drivers in each Duel will make the Daytona 500. The non-Top 35 drivers are evenly divided in the Duels based on qualifying speed. The fastest qualifier will be in the first Duel, the second fastest in the second, and so on. Looking at the entry list for the 500 this year, there are 19 drivers fighting for those final four starting positions:
#7-Robby Gordon, 186.850 #61-Kevin Lepage, 186.037 #27-Kirk Shelmerdine, 185.361 #15-Paul Menard, 185.334 #95-Stanton Barrett, 185.322 #50-Larry Foyt, 185.158 #4-Scott Wimmer, 184.854 #64-Randy LaJoie, 184.540 #89-Morgan Shepherd, 183.576 #74-Derrike Cope, 183.333 #09-Mike Wallace, 182.953 #23-Mike Skinner, 182.771 #37-Chad Blount, 181.906 #92-Chad Chaffin, 181.763 #78-Kenny Wallace, 181.594 #52-Larry Gunselman, 181.214 #10-Scott Riggs, 180.890 #59-Andy Belmont, 179.960 #80-Carl Long, 176.935
Several interesting stories exist among those 19, including Robby Gordon. The only owner/driver competing full-time in Nextel Cup, engine woes dogged Gordon’s team for most of 2005. This year, they have agreed to correct the problem, leasing engines from DEI. If reliability in the engine department can be maintained, Robby will have a great chance to work his way into the Top 35, but first, he must make the Daytona 500.
Kevin Lepage did a magnificent job racing his way into the 500 last year. With his ability driving restrictor plate cars, he has to be considered a strong candidate to make the 500 again this year.
Scott Wimmer, Mike Skinner, Scott Riggs, and Paul Menard are also strong candidates for making the race, as they are driving for established organizations. They have teammates that are in the show and may be able to help them get to the front in their respective qualifying races.
Kirk Shelmerdine and Morgan Shepherd, meanwhile, are chasing the dream, trying to break into the Cup series with seriously underfunded operations. Their chances are not good, but they would certainly be a feel-good story if they could be in the right line at the right time to end up making the 500.
The drivers trying to race their way in will line up in the Duels as follows:
#7-Robby Gordon, 186.850 #27-Kirk Shelmerdine, 185.361 #95-Stanton Barrett, 185.322 #4-Scott Wimmer, 184.854 #89-Morgan Shepherd, 183.576 #09-Mike Wallace, 182.953 #37-Chad Blount, 181.906 #78-Kenny Wallace, 181.594 #10-Scott Riggs, 180.890 #80-Carl Long, 176.935
#61-Kevin Lepage, 186.037 #15-Paul Menard, 185.334 #50-Larry Foyt, 185.158 #64-Randy LaJoie, 184.540 #74-Derrike Cope, 183.333 #23-Mike Skinner, 182.771 #92-Chad Chaffin, 181.763 #52-Larry Gunselman, 181.214 #59-Andy Belmont, 179.960
Looking at the lineup, someone on a team that is trying to compete full-time is going home. With Robby Gordon, Scott Wimmer, and Scott Riggs all in the first race, it’ll be a pressure-packed environment in which at least one will come up empty. The second race gives Skinner and Menard a good shot, considering they are the two drivers from established teams attempting to qualify in that race. However, knowing the unpredictability of restrictor plate racing, anything can happen. Staying out of trouble will be critical for these drivers if they have any hope of making the 500.
The Top 35 is critical to a team’s ongoing success. Being guaranteed a starting spot makes the race weekend all about working toward racing well and not about just making the race. The first major step toward being a top 35 team is making the Daytona 500. Good luck to each and every one of these teams trying to do it they old fashioned way"¦by earning it.
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