Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Thursday’s Duel races? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H…the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Duel 1: Want a darkhorse pick for the Daytona 500? While you could easily go with Kurt Busch from this race, who scored a solid top-five finish, don’t overlook Casey Mears. Mears is a very good restrictor-plate racer who hasn’t often had Lady Luck on his side. He was the runner-up in the 2006 Daytona 500 and had a strong run last year with his underfunded Germain Racing team, looking like a contender until an EFI issue reared its head late in the race. Mears also had a top-five (and more likely a top-two) finish at Talladega last fall until that was derailed in spectacular fashion by an ill-timed Tony Stewart block. Mears finished eighth in his Duel despite getting little help in the draft; he could be a surprise on Sunday.
Duel 2: There’s no doubt about the strength of the Richard Childress Racing stable this week, but 22-year-old Austin Dillon was especially impressive as he raced a Cup car at Daytona for the first time. Dillon, who wasn’t always patient in his Nationwide Series car last year, had the patience of a veteran on Thursday. A lot of inexperienced drivers might have made a move on the final lap, tasting victory, only to wind up all alone and falling like a rock. Dillon didn’t get suckered into that, and it paid off with a third-place run. Whether or not he’ll be able to outrun the veterans on Sunday is still up in the air, but Dillon had a nice showing in his qualifying race.
What… was THAT?
We got a few more pieces of how this racecar will behave in restrictor-plate race conditions. In the first duel, pit stops really broke up the pack that ran as a whole for the first half of the race. In the recent past, this breaking up was temporary as one huge pack was the norm, except for a year or so of tandem drafting. Sunday’s race will be the real test of just how important these stops are going to be at Daytona and Talladega; several drivers commented afterwards that one mistake will make it impossible to work your way back up through the field.
The second race reminded me of what restrictor-plate racing looked like in the late 1990s before NASCAR made rules changes to tighten up the pack. The field was split into a few smaller groups with a lead pack of six or seven cars late in the race. Personally, I didn’t mind that at all; it’s the type of plate racing I remember from when I started watching the sport regularly. But I fear that many fans, especially the ones who entered the sport post-2000, will be unhappy with the second Duel.
Finally, Martin Truex Jr. will race on Sunday despite not having his last lap scored in the first Duel as the result of a missing right-side window, which is required on tracks longer than a mile. That marks the second time in less than a week a right-side window has popped out (Carl Edwards lost his during the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night). It seems a little odd that two cars of different makes would have the same issue, especially one that happens so rarely. Perhaps it’s something NASCAR will need to look at going forward with this car as on the plate tracks, it’s a safety issue; air getting inside the car increases the chance of going airborne.
Where… did the defending race winners wind up?
Duel 1: In a twist of fate, both previous Duel winners ended up in the same race each was in last year. In the first event, Stewart finished sixth, but for Stewart, the real unfinished business comes Sunday, when he’ll try again to win the race that has eluded him for his entire career. Not unlike Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr. before him, three-time champion Stewart has won just about everything there is to win in NASCAR, except the Great American Race. This year will mark Stewart’s 15th attempt at Daytona immortality.
Duel 2: In the second race of the day, defending duel winner and Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth finished fifth. Kenseth is almost the flip side of Stewart in terms of Daytona and career. Kenseth is a two-time Daytona 500 winner searching for a second Cup title, which has stayed out of reach despite his remarkable consistency. This year, Kenseth will try at age 41 to accomplish the feat, this time with powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing. For both Kenseth and Stewart, who is also over 40, the years are ticking by — is 2013 the year both of them achieve that missing piece?
When… will I be loved?
Duel 1: Drivers were, understandably, on their best behavior in the Duels, which don’t pay very much nor carry much prestige compared to the main event on Sunday. In the first race, Denny Hamlin got loose and went around, collecting Edwards and Trevor Bayne. But you can’t blame Hamlin for what really is just the nature of plate racing. Actually, this “Mini One” might have collected the same number of cars at an intermediate track. While Edwards and Bayne may be understandably disappointed (this was the fourth wreck for Edwards this week among three different cars, and Bayne led 37 laps and had a car capable of winning the race on Thursday) they can’t really blame Hamlin for this one.
Duel 2: The second Duel of the day was run as close to flawlessly as a group of drivers gets on a restrictor-plate track. Because nobody did anything untoward, the race was the second fastest Duel in the races’ history at over 193 mph. To run those speeds, that close together, and not make a mistake is worth thinking about for a minute. It’s not easy to do. And while it may have looked to the casual fan that drivers weren’t making any moves, that’s only partially true. Nobody wants to risk destroying their primary car for the sport’s biggest event in a qualifier, that’s just common sense. But to pull out and pass, as I said above, a driver needs a few guys to go with him. If you don’t have that, like Mears found out in the first race, you’re going to drop like a stone. Drivers in the second go-round learned from that. If you think plate racing works without partnerships, even in the absence of the tandems, you have a whole other thing coming. And not being able to go it alone might mean fewer moves for the lead if the help isn’t there.
Honorable (?) Mention: While it didn’t affect the race outcome, NASCAR.com deserves a mention for its epic fail of website design. First, many fans were unable to access the Raceview Premium or Audio products that they paid up to $80 a year for. This “catastrophe” seems to happen every time they attempt to offer a race for free. I understand wanting to attract new customers with a promotion, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of those who have already paid for the service.
Also, long after the first Duel ended, full results were not available. There was a list of lead-lap finishers by car number on the Live Leaderboard page, but it was incomplete. There was no list that included things like laps completed or led, final finishing status, etc. There used to be a link right on the main page that went to just such a results sheet. To be fair, there is, after you search for it for a while, one available… but as of the end of the second Duel, it still listed the results from the Sprint Unlimited. Every time NASCAR attempts to update the site, they make it worse.
Why… worry now?
The Duels aren’t points races, so nobody saw their title hopes go up in flames like you might see at Talladega in October. However, the week’s activities did leave a few drivers behind the eight-ball to start the season. In particular, Edwards has suffered what could be an early season blow, beginning with a hard crash in preseason Daytona testing. Last week, practicing for the Sprint Unlimited, Edwards wrecked his car for that race, forcing him to go to his Daytona 500 backup. His team made preparations to return to Charlotte for a replacement, which was a smart move because they’d need it: Edwards suffered another practice crash before having his primary car turned into sheet metal spaghetti in the first Duel.
The string of crashes may not hurt Edwards too badly – his team is probably in better shape than most, but there has been a parts shortage, and some teams had worried preseason that wrecking too many cars would lead to a shortage for their organizations down the road. While it’s unlikely that Edwards; team will face any issues stemming from the shortage of parts by the time Talladega rolls around in two months, they will probably have to put more time than originally planned fixing these cars or building new ones for that race. For teams who work to prepare cars months in advance of races, having to budget extra time for one event means they’ll have to cut back elsewhere. Will the Daytona’s carnage affect Edwards going forward? Unlikely, but if their performance continues to suffer as it did in 2012, at least they have somewhere to point the finger.
How… did the little guys do?
Furniture Row Racing (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy): Busch was the top finisher among the small teams (though whether or not this RCR satellite can still be considered a small team is up for debate after Busch said they are basically a fourth RCR team. What say you, fans? Do we continue to include them in this section?) with a solid fifth-place run. Busch could take FRR to Victory Lane on a plate track this year; will it be in the 500? Busch will start 11th on Sunday.
Germain Racing (No. 13 GEICO Ford): Mears is a deceptively good plate racer, and his Duel was no exception; Mears ran strong all race, sitting in second for the first half, but couldn’t find a drafting partner on the last restart and got hung up in the middle. He finished eighth and will start the 500 17th. Like Busch and FRR, this is a team who could surprise and win a plate race this year.
JTG Daugherty Racing (No. 47 Kroger Toyota): Bobby Labonte is one of those drivers who is going to put in a solid performance week in and week out. He finished 11th Thursday, and will start mid-pack, in 23rd for the 500.
Front Row Motorsports (No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): David Gilliland put his team in the Daytona 500, starting 25th, with his 12th-place result. A lap down at one point, the Lucky Dog for the Hamlin wreck put him position to move up. He’s one of a handful of drivers who had to navigate this race without a teammate, since David Ragan and Josh Wise both raced in the second Duel.
NEMCO Motorsports (No. 87 MaddiesPlaceRocks.com Chevy): Joe Nemechek doesn’t have the funds to go the distance very often, but he likely will try to race all day Sunday after his 13th-place finish guarantees him a 27th-place starting spot.
Swan Racing (No. 26 Sandy Hook School Support Fund Toyota): Michael Waltrip is a restrictor-plate specialist, and looked strong late in the event. He faded a bit at the end, but squeezed into the big race with a 14th-place run. He’ll start 29th on Sunday. That’s a feel-good story in the making, because Waltrip is racing to raise money to support those affected by the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Leavine Family Racing (No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford): Scott Speed was the real beneficiary of Truex’s misfortune. When Truex wasn’t scored for the final lap, after losing his passenger-side window, it moved Speed into the 15th and final spot to guarantee a spot in the 500, starting 31st.
BK Racing (No. 83 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyota): David Reutimann just missed the final cut, winding up 16th when the dust cleared. That left Reutimann to wait and wonder as the second race ran, and when all was said and done, he did make the big race, where he’ll start 42nd on a provisional.
Phoenix Racing (No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): Regan Smith suffered damage in the lap 52 crash. He finished the race in 19th place, not good enough to race into the big one on Sunday, but he’ll start 40th on a provisional.
Hamilton-Means Racing (No. 52 TruckerFan.com Toyota): Brian Keselowski will not repeat his 2011 feel-good story. Keselowski finished last among drivers not involved in a crash in this race. His only chance to compete Sunday was to finish in the top 15, and he’ll be one of two drivers headed home early.
Wood Brothers Racing (No 21 Motorcraft Ford): Bayne is thanking his lucky stars that he locked himself into the Great American Race on time, because after leading 37 laps, Bayne got on to pit road a little hot, getting in the grass and forcing a four-tire stop that left him back in the field… and in the line of fire for a hard hit to the wall after Hamlin turned around in front of him. Bayne finished dead last, but he’ll race on Sunday from the 33rd starting spot.
Front Row Motorsports (No. 34 Detail Doctor Ford & No. 35 MDS Transport Chevy): Ragan was the best of the small-team drivers in this race, finishing 10th in a solid race. Ragan will start 22nd Sunday, and could be a contender for a top-10 finish — he’s a solid plate driver whose only career Cup win came at Daytona in July 2011. Teammate Wise finished 16th, locking himself into the Daytona 500 as well, starting from 32nd spot. Whether Wise will go the distance in most races this year remains to be seen.
Tommy Baldwin Racing (No. 7 Florida Lottery Chevy & No. 36 Golden Corral Chevy): Dave Blaney locked himself into the Daytona 500 with his 15th-place finish; he’ll start in 30th position. Blaney is another driver who has shown strength at plate tracks in the past, and a solid top-15 result would be a great start to 2013 for this organization. Teammate JJ Yeley nabbed a provisional spot in the big race after finishing 20th in the Duel. Again, this is a team that tries to race the distance each week, but sponsorship will dictate if Blaney and Yeley go the distance most races.
BK Racing (No. 93 Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Travis Kvapil came home 17th, one spot shy of qualifying on time, but he will start last on Sunday thanks to the provisional his 2012 points gave him. BK Racing did make some gains in 2012 but will need to continue that path in the new season.
FAS Lane Racing (No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford): Terry Labonte finished 18th on Thursday, but will start the Daytona 500 from a 39th-place provisional based on car owner points, though he also had a past champion’s spot had he needed it. Labonte is past his prime as a racer but should bring the car home in one piece unless he gets caught in an accident of someone else’s doing, and for a small team trying to go the distance, sometimes that’s important. The team was running inside the top 10 before a pit road speeding penalty cost Labonte dearly on-track.
Phil Parsons Racing (No. 98 K-Love/Curb Records Ford): Michael McDowell finished his Duel 19th but will start on a provisional Sunday. Parsons rarely plans to run the distance, but Sunday will be a rare exception.
TriStar Motorsports (No. 19 G-Oil/Plinker Tactical Ford): Mike Bliss will miss the show after being black-flagged early in the race when his window net came down, which is a safety violation. Bliss’s team got the net back in place, but the car finished five laps down, ending his Daytona bid.