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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Dialing It In: Making Sense of the Gatorade Duels

The 150-mile Gatorade Duel qualifying races showcase some of the best racing during the entirety of Speedweeks at Daytona. In one of the most unique and complicated qualifying processes in all of sports, the front row for the 52nd Daytona 500 was set on Sunday, but the rest of the field will race for their spot on the grid during their respective Duel race. Adding to the confusion and excitement, seven drivers in each race will be vying for just four open starting spots in Sunday’s 500.

Let’s try to make sense of the process.

After winning the pole on Saturday, Mark Martin will lead the first 150-mile race from the front row. Starting to his outside will be 2008 Daytona 500 champion Ryan Newman, with Bill Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer rounding out the top five. Martin’s shopmate Dale Earnhardt Jr. will lead the second Duel to the green after posting the second-fastest qualifying time this past weekend. Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Sam Hornish Jr. will round out the top-five starters in the second race of the day.

While your qualifying lap from Saturday determines your starting spot in Thursday’s race, which Duel race you compete in is determined by your finishing position in the Top 35 in owner points from 2009. Those that finished in the odd number spots in the standings are in the first 150-mile race, while those that finished in the even spots are in the second event. This does not apply to Martin and Earnhardt Jr., however, as the front row automatically races in different Duels.

With those in the Top 35 locked into Sunday’s race, the two goals for Thursday are to improve your starting spot for the 500 and bring the car home in one piece. The Duels serve as the perfect race scenario and practice for Sunday – but are wrought with all the same dangers.

Last year, eventual race winner Kenseth was forced to a backup car after a wreck with Hornish Jr. and John Andretti. Obviously, Kenseth was able to overcome this incident, but the extra man-hours put into preparing another car just days before the biggest race of the year can prove a major setback.

For Martin and Earnhardt Jr., those dangers not only raise the potential of going to a backup car, but the loss of their guaranteed front row starting spot. Regardless of where these two finish in their respective Duel races, as long as they finish the race without needing to go to a backup car, they will remain on the front row come Sunday. Last year’s polesitter Martin Truex Jr. was turned coming off turn 2 in his Duel, but was able to slow the car down and avoid any damage – allowing him to keep his starting spot.

“You’re just looking around and looking in your mirrors, hoping and praying,” Truex explained. “There are no two ways about it. You have to have luck on your side [as the polesitter].”

Keeping cars out of trouble is always easier said than done, as there are a group of hungry drivers in each Duel looking to fight their way into the Great American Race. Four drivers outside the Top 35 have already locked themselves into the event thanks to stellar qualifying runs: Bill Elliott, Scott Speed and Joe Nemechek are able to fall back on their times from Saturday, while Bobby Labonte is also locked into Sunday’s race thanks to the past champion’s provisional (Labonte was the 2000 Cup Series champion).

With the Top 35 automatically locked into the race and Elliott, Speed, Nemechek and Labonte also guaranteed a starting spot, that leaves four open spots to be filled on Thursday. 15 drivers and teams have worked all offseason for the chance to race in the year’s biggest event but, unfortunately, 11 will go home just shy of that dream.

In the first race, those racing their way into the event include two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip, Reed Sorenson, Max Papis, Jeff Fuller, Terry Cook, Michael McDowell and Kirk Shelmerdine. The second Duel race includes Mike Bliss, Casey Mears, David Gilliland, Aric Almirola, Dave Blaney, Mike Wallace, Derrike Cope and Norm Benning.

So, let’s try to recap.

If Martin and Earnhardt Jr. can finish without going to a backup car, they will maintain their front row spot for Sunday’s Daytona 500. The winners of the two Duel races will start in row number two, with the rest of the field set by how they finished in each Duel (inside lane being the first race and the outside being the second race). The final four spots in the 43-car field will be determined by the two highest-finishing cars in each Duel race that aren’t already locked-in, leaving 11 teams out of the race and out of luck to start the 2010 season.

Pit Notes

  • Bowyer, David Reutimann, Cope, Johnson, Joey Logano, and Bliss were forced to backup cars and will start at the tail end of the field in their respective Duel races – the most backup cars we’ve seen since the current qualifying system was tweaked in 2005. After starting from the rear of the field, the six drivers will not be penalized any further for going to a backup car. Cope and Bliss are also still required to race their way into Sunday’s Daytona 500.
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