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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Twin 150-Mile Qualifying Races to Provide Drama & Suspense – On a Slightly Smaller Scale

The twin qualifying races known as the Gatorade Duel at Daytona running today, will determine spots three through 39 for the 52nd annual Daytona 500. In years gone by, the Duel 150s were shorter – 125 miles – and provided some of the most intense and emotional racing to be had during all of Speedweeks. Recently however, the excitement of the Duel 150s has been as absent as the long departed and much lamented IROC race. With the advent of the Top-35 rule and past champions’ provisionals, the ability for smaller teams to race their way in past the established teams has been effectively neutered.

How so?

The Top 35 in owner points were guaranteed a starting spot in the 500 before the season even started. Following Saturday’s qualifying, 33 of the Top-35 drivers are locked in by owner points. Of those not in the Top 35, three drivers are guaranteed spots based on speed (Bill Elliott, Scott Speed and Joe Nemechek), with Bobby Labonte using the past champion’s provisional if he cannot race his way in – not that he has to.

That is not to say there won’t be any drama to be had this afternoon.

If any of these drivers do happen to race their way in to the two spots in each Duel, that opens things up for four drivers to make their way in on speed; Michael Waltrip (fourth fastest – first Duel,), Mike Bliss (fifth fastest – second Duel), Reed Sorenson (sixth fastest – first Duel) and Casey Mears (seventh fastest – second Duel).

Got all that? If not, don’t sweat it. Somebody on TV will explain it to you as it happens.

To help set the stage for the improbable task of grabbing the seven or eight spots remaining, there were a number of incidents Wednesday around the 2.5-mile tri-oval which will impact the unfolding of the Duels, as well as who may or may not make the cut for the Daytona 500.

In Wednesday’s first practice, three cars were wiped out when Clint Bowyer had a tire go down in the second turn, sending him up the banking and into the wall. David Reutimann had no place to go and drilled the back of Bowyer’s No. 33 Chevrolet, as did 1990 Daytona 500 champion Derrike Cope, who drove into the back of Reutimann. Both Reutimann and Bowyer will be relegated to backup cars, while Cope’s team struggles to repair his crippled machine.

The second practice session saw more action, taking out three legitimate contenders for Thursday’s races, and threats to win the Daytona 500.

After posting the third-fastest speed in the first session, Brian Vickers‘s No. 83 Red Bull Toyota lost a tire in turn 1, sending him sliding down through the infield. Bliss in the No. 36 Wave Energy Drink Chevrolet spun while in the middle of a pack of cars, shooting up the racetrack, collecting both 2009 Rookie of the Year Joey Logano (who had the fourth-fastest time during the second session), and four-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. All three drivers will go to backup cars for Thursday’s Duel races.

Of note, it appears that the speed shown Saturday night by the Roush Fenway and Richard Petty Motorsports entries with the previous 452 model Ford engine, will be sustained with the new FR9 engine the Blue Oval brigade will be packing. Defending Daytona 500 champ Matt Kenseth posted the fastest speed Wednesday in the draft at 194.254 mph, while Carl Edwards was fifth with a 193.503-mph lap. The second session saw Kasey Kahne who finished runner up on Saturday with a 192.612-mph speed, and Kenseth posting an identical lap time to tie for fifth on the practice sheet.

The real threat however may come in the form of a Toyota. Yes, feel free to insert your stuck-throttle joke here.

The first practice session had four Camrys in the top 10, with Kyle Busch and Vickers leading the way ahead of Reutimann and Logano – those two going to backup cars following their aforementioned incidents. The final practice Happy Hour session saw Marcos Ambrose’s No. 47 Toyota at the top of the charts, with three more Hiroshima hot rods – Busch, Reed Sorenson and Logano – right behind. The next five cars were the Fords of Kahne, Kenseth, Paul Menard, Greg Biffle, Elliott Sadler and Carl Edwards.

It might appear as if, despite sweeping the front row, the Chevrolets are in a bit of a bind. If you discount the fastest speeds posted as simply the product of drafting and getting bumped hard enough, the average speeds help dispel any myths or misconceptions.

Marcos Ambrose 193.339 Toyota
Elliott Sadler 189.308 Ford
Denny Hamlin 189.293 Toyota
Greg Biffle 189.270 Ford
Jimmie Johnson 189.255 Chevrolet

Johnson’s primary No. 48 Lowe’s Impala got mangled in the final practice session, so he will be driving a different one Thursday. The next fastest Bow Ties are Jeff Burton in 11th at 188.83 mph and Tony Stewart in 15th with a 188.66 mph average speed over 15 laps. The front row Hendrick Chevrolets of Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were 24th and 26th respectively, with speeds of 188.01 and 187.89 mph.

Fantastic you say; “Thank you sir for that festival of numbers and decimal points that look awfully important.” But what does it mean, Stimpy? Considering this is restrictor-plate racing at Daytona, probably not a whole heck of a lot. During each session, teams may be trying different things to eliminate, or simply attempting to get a gauge on their fuel mileage.

To get a sense of where things stand, I would take a look to the first practice session on Wednesday morning:

Kevin Harvick 190.038 Chevrolet
Jamie McMurray 189.204 Chevrolet
Matt Kenseth 189.148 Ford
Kasey Kahne 189.080 Ford
Juan Pablo Montoya 188.985 Chevrolet

This I believe is telling, since Harvick won the Bud Shootout Saturday Night, while McMurray had been the fastest car before getting wiped out in a practice accident for the exhibition race. Kenseth and Kahne were up front all night, and JPM is serving notice that the No. 42 car will be a fixture up front for the foreseeable future.

My fearless pre-race predictions? McMurray wins the first 150-mile Duel, with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Edwards and Burton rounding out the top five. For the second Duel 150, Kenseth gets a pick me up following a disappointing 2009 (yeah, a Daytona 500 win really sucks, right?), with Montoya, Kahne, Brad Keselowski and Ambrose in tow.

Though much of these events will likely be devoid of any real racing up front, as the teams will wish to preserve their precious primary cars for the big show on Sunday, there will most definitely be some hotly contested action in the middle and back of the field for each race. As there is each year, there will be the screams of joy and exultation for those who manage to make their way in to the Super Bowl of stock car racing, as well as weeping and gnashing of teeth for those who fail to qualify for the most important race of the year.

The worst part of all of this, is that most of us have to rely on our DVR to catch it, as the races are run while many are toiling away at work.