*Did You Notice?* … That there hasn’t been much out there previewing the Duels? Yes, with only 48 cars there’s not the same type of drama as in past years – only five will miss the field – but it’s still a battle to make NASCAR’s most prestigious race. Add in the big purse and the crapshoot of a repaved track where the full 43-car field could stay in contention and yes, qualifying still means something. So let’s take a look at the storylines from each Duel:
*Duel Number 1*
*Who’s Not Locked In:* Bill Elliott, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek, Kevin Conway, Michael McDowell, J.J. Yeley
*Automatics:* Elliott and Nemechek (if they don’t make it in through the Duels, their speeds are good enough to secure two of the final four spots remaining)
*Sleeper:* Conway. Sure, the Extenze driver gets more flak than probably any other driver or Rookie of the Year this circuit has ever had. But the one respectable Cup finish to his credit – a 14th – came at Daytona and he has a teammate (Nemechek) effectively locked into the field. That leaves just three men to beat (Blaney, McDowell and Yeley in my mind) and underfunded NEMCO Motorsports needs the money grab of a second spot. Expect the No. 97 to make it.
*Forget About…:* McDowell. Last season, PRISM Motorsports’ No. 55 proved a Cinderella story after fighting from nearly going a lap down to make the field through a timely caution. But miracles can only happen so often; the new “HP Racing” team doesn’t have the horsepower, the handling or the drafting partners to stay in contention.
*Who Makes It In:* Elliott, Conway
*Locked In Drivers With Something To Prove:* *Paul Menard.* RCR’s fourth driver qualified second for this Duel but most don’t expect him to stay there. With teammate Kevin Harvick in the race, will the two of them work together? Can Menard use this moment to start shedding his label as a mediocre driver and pull the upset?
*A.J. Allmendinger.* Starting 12th in this Duel, but he’s always strong at Daytona and had arguably the fastest car for the 500 each of the last two years. Can he finally get through an entire Speedweeks without controversy? Keep in mind the last time we visited Daytona, last July he ended up wrecked and in a shouting match with the one man you don’t swear at: King Richard Petty.
*Brian Vickers.* 19th in the first Duel, just taking to the track will be an accomplishment in itself just nine months after blood clots threatened to permanently derail his career. Can he and Kasey Kahne (starting 17th) work together and push towards the front, and have they solved mechanical issues that derailed Kahne’s bid for victory in the Shootout?
*Other Non-Qualifying Storylines To Watch:* How does Dale Earnhardt, Jr. do with his backup car after wrecking in Wednesday practice? With all the 10th anniversary stories, will the “ghost car” graphic of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. appear, a black No. 3 Chevrolet suddenly filling in for Kyle Busch as Junior’s dancing partner and taking the No. 88 to Victory Lane?
Can Mark Martin and Tony Stewart recover from ugly Shootout incidents in which they wrecked the cars they were drafting with (Kyle Busch and Michael Waltrip, respectively?) How hard will drivers push the two-car drafts to see if their engines overheat? How will the smaller plates affect the drafting?
*Your Duel Winner:* Kevin Harvick. He should have shown stronger in the Shootout on Saturday, and with another teammate in the field needing to make a strong statement (Menard) I just have a feeling good things will happen for a car looking more like Earnhardt’s old paint scheme than ever before. Hendrick should be a close second with some twosome of Martin, Junior, and Johnson challenging the Harvick-Menard duo coming to the line.
*Duel Number 2*
*Who’s Not Locked In:* Travis Kvapil, Michael Waltrip, Todd Bodine, Casey Mears, Terry Labonte, Derrike Cope, Brian Keselowski
*Automatics:* Travis Kvapil, Terry Labonte. The former is locked in on speed, while the latter has the Past Champion’s Provisional to lean on for seemingly the 4,500th time. Hey, wasn’t Terry Labonte supposed to retire in 2006? Oh, that’s right, he did; I guess you can’t call collecting a paycheck actually competing, can you.
*Sleeper:* *Todd Bodine.* The defending Truck Series champ hasn’t made a 500 start in seven years; in fact, he’s never so much as finished a Great American Race inside the top 15. But the one-race deal from Tire Kingdom, the rare opportunity to run a full Cup race without starting and parking and years of drafting experience should be enough to get him over the hump in a weak field.
*Forget About…:* *Derrike Cope, Brian Keselowski.* Both drivers are nice guys … they really are. But considering Cope was getting lapped about every 10 circuits in the Shootout, he’s probably not a viable option and with Kes off the pace by 18 miles an hour in practice, I’m guessing these two will be drafting partners that finish the 60-lapper three or more laps down.
*Who Makes It In:* Waltrip, Bodine
*Locked In Drivers With Something To Prove:* *Trevor Bayne.* After qualifying second for this duel, does this kid have it in him to stay up front for a full 60-lap run? Remember, the Wood Brothers are a single-car team within a two-car drafting system; it’s not guaranteed this rookie will find himself a partner down the homestretch.
*Roush Fenway Racing.* Carl Edwards, David Ragan, and Greg Biffle are all in this race after a disappointing Shootout where Edwards wrecked and Biffle never really came close to contending for the win. Considering Ford ended the year 2-for-2 in 2010, you’d like to see them up front in a Duel, flexing their muscle for the sport’s biggest race so that momentum doesn’t die on the vine.
*Steve Wallace.* If he keeps the car in one piece, inside the draft for the entire 60 laps it will be a tremendous accomplishment in a Cup debut that’s a bit premature. 50/50 he wrecks it… ditto for *Robert Richardson, Jr.,* locked into the race through Front Row Motorsports and sponsorship cash.
*Other Non-Qualifying Stories to Watch:* Who will be Jeff Gordon’s drafting partner with the rest of Hendrick Motorsports and Pseudo-Hendrick (Stewart-Haas Racing) in that other Duel? Can Denny Hamlin’s steering wheel stay on for all 60 laps … and has he learned the difference between the colors gray and yellow? Speaking of Hamlin, the majority of Toyotas are in this race, including all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars … can they find the speed?
*Your Duel Winner:* Clint Bowyer. Hey, he’s my 2011 sleeper pick to contend for the title; the guy’s got to start somewhere, right?
*Eight Drivers To Make The 500 Field Are:* Elliott, Conway, Waltrip, Bodine (Duels); Kvapil, Nemechek, Blaney (Qualifying speed); T. Labonte (Past Champion’s Provisional)
*Did You Notice?* … How in that list I just mentioned, two drivers who have no business being in Cup in the first place, Steve Wallace and Robert Richardson, Jr. have “earned” their spot on the Daytona 500 grid with owner points? Where is the outrage over this practice? Man, I wish I had money or a famous father, because I’d like to start in the Great American Race, too.
Again, both men are nice guys, personable off the track and have a place in the Nationwide Series. That’s about it. I still don’t understand how when the IRL “locked in” 25 of the 33 starting spots for the 500, traditionalists freaked to the point Tony George had to go with a 35-car field in 1997 before abolishing the rule; yet here, in NASCAR we’ve had the top 35 regulation for years and gotten nothing but feeble protests up the ladder to the sanctioning body. And you wonder why new teams aren’t entering this sport? How can they when there’s limited opportunities, if any to sneak in the sport’s biggest race?
*Did You Notice?* … Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. pairing up on Saturday night? Talk about your weird partnerships … that’s the funny thing about this new drafting system, at least, the unexpected on-track relationships that happen in between off-track hatred. My dream matchups for Sunday:
*Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.* Who blinks first? And/or loses a steering wheel?
*Joey Logano and Juan Pablo Montoya.* They better both be wearing firesuits, because one’s likely to set the other’s car on fire.
*Martin Truex, Jr. and Jeff Gordon.* Truex may be the quiet type, but he’s also the type of driver who never forgets. Wine country? Last summer? Killed someone’s Chase chances? The hunger car may get fed a nice dose of revenge on the final lap.
*Did You Notice?* … The Nationwide Series only has 44 cars on the entry list, with about a half-dozen of those Cup drivers making a spot start, one-race deal? Moving forward, you’ve got to examine the serious long-term health of this series over Camping World Trucks even with the better TV deals. There’s no rookies (Danica Patrick doesn’t count) a scant few new teams even with the new car and now, no Cup drivers running for a championship. I think banning them was the right thing to do, but is it a matter of too little, too late? To recapture momentum here, it’s critical that somebody – Justin Allgaier, Aric Almirola, whoever – comes out and wins a handful of races early for the Nationwide-only guys. Give this series a new storyline to draw from, one that will last for the long haul; because if it’s Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards, all anyone will be talking about is how they would be leading the points if only they would be allowed to compete for a title. Oh, the same of it all; and the best part is Nationwide, who desperately wanted them to compete will jump right on board with that.
*Did You Notice?* … Some quick hits before I take off:
– OK, I’ve made it clear I’m not a fan of the two-car drafts for various reasons. But since Saturday, NASCAR has made not one, not two but three changes to try and break that practice up. Between the cooling system tweaks and the smaller plate, I’m not sure whether I should be happy at NASCAR for trying to fix things or angry for failing to stick with something for more than a few days. It’s got to be one or the other, though; I see fans angry at the two-car drafts and THEN angry that there were changes less than a week before the biggest race of the year. Well which is it, guys? What’s the deal? Because you can’t put NASCAR in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position…
– Now that Rick Hendrick has signed his son, does that mean Bill Elliott can finally retire? I just don’t want to see another former Cup champion start-and-park. For those who knew how good these drivers once were, it’s painful to watch…
– Words I never thought I’d speak again two years ago: I can’t wait for Truck Series qualifying on Friday. Now THAT is going to be white-knuckle, 45 or so legimate entries and only 25 “locked in” spots. Some really good drivers are going to go home; and then the race? With all the new rookies, the sly veterans looking to fix bad 2010 seasons (Ron Hornaday, Mike Skinner) and the superspeedway savvy of veteran Todd Bodine? That’s the best race of Speedweeks this year; calling it hands down.