There’s always tension surrounding the qualifying races for the Daytona 500 – after all, at stake is inclusion in the season’s biggest and first event. Under the current rules, few teams are 100 percent safe, and for some of the smaller teams hoping to make the show, it’s downright nerve-wracking. At the end of the night, six teams were left to load up their equipment and start the long drive back to North Carolina three days early.
Most weeks, qualifying is fairly predictable. One or two teams go home, but they’re almost always real backmarkers. Not so for the Daytona 500, and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. When NASCAR had a rule in effect that locked the top 35 teams in owner points into every race, the week-long process was next to useless as the majority of the field was already determined. Now it’s not, and that brings back an element of excitement to the mix.
But it also means that for some teams, generally the ones who can afford it the least, the season is all but over before it started.
That’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. On one hand, it allows some real underdogs to steal the spotlight when they race their way into the Great American Race. On the other, though, it means that full-time teams racing all year for points will miss a full race worth of those points while part-time teams and ones that will start and park for part of the rest of the season make the show at their expense. That’s a little hard to swallow for teams who show up to race 36 full races and their fans.
Everyone loves an underdog, and it’s good for the sport to see a few of them in the limelight for a week knowing they’ll fade into the background pretty fast once the Cup Series moves on to the intermediate tracks where anyone without a huge budget is generally shut out before they even arrive. Seeing talented racers in underfunded cars suddenly racing door-to-door with the upper-level teams because the playing field is more equal is exciting… and an eye-opener.
On Wednesday, I wrote about five drivers who were worth watching in the Daytona 500, all with smaller teams who could play spoiler. Where do they stand after Thursday’s qualifying races? The picture they paint is a microcosm of the entire process.
In the first race of the night, Casey Mears blew his engine, finishing dead last. For Mears, that meant he’d have to rely on a provisional, and that meant that almost everyone in front of his team in owner points had to finish in the top 15 of their races. For Mears, the night was a sickening vigil, watching and waiting to see if enough people would have trouble to negate his own.
Landon Cassill, meanwhile, drove exactly the race he needed to. He avoided trouble – including a spin – and raced his way cleanly into Sunday’s feature, finishing ninth. Michael McDowell did the same, grabbing a 12th-place result. There was no waiting on pins and needles for those two. Their teams got some airtime for their sponsors and will get one of the best payouts of the season on Sunday. The rest of Cassill’s and McDowell’s night was the polar opposite of Mears’: celebratory instead of stressful.
The second race was a little wilder and a little more tense. Everyone knew the score. Two drivers were eliminated after the first race, so that left four more to be decided by this one. Mears’ fate was still in the balance, along with Johnny Sauter‘s. Martin Truex, Jr. didn’t quite equal his performance from Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, but his showing was more than adequate in the end, finishing sixth, he easily transferred, and flexed a little muscle along the way, showing that he can be a factor.
David Ragan‘s race was much more trying. Ragan spun off the bumper of rookie Jeb Burton and ever so slightly touched the inside wall. He fell a lap down and without owner points to fall back on after a swap with the No. 35, it looked as though Ragan would be watching the Daytona 500 on television. But a free pass on the next yellow flag put Ragan back in the game and he played it masterfully from there, racing into 14th place and securing a spot to try for the win on Sunday.
After the distraction of a pit road scuffle between Denny Hamlin and Danica Patrick, the final cut was announced, and Mears could breathe a sigh of relief: he’ll start at the back on Sunday, but he’ll start. He knows what it’s like to miss the race and he knows what it’s like to run at the front of it, both ends of the spectrum that will run drivers ragged on Sunday.
Qualifying for Daytona has always been its own animal, and it should be. It’s all part of the pre-season hype and it’s good for fans – particularly when, as they did on Thursday, some underdogs become an important part of the story. With a new season at hand, it gives an air of optimism, the feeling that anything could happen Sunday, anyone could win. That feeling doesn’t last forever, but for now, for most, hope springs eternal.
The flip side is, of course, the six teams who now pack up their cars and equipment and back their haulers out of the garage in the dead of night. For them, the dream is over. The juxtaposition of excitement and disappointment isn’t something that can happen every week, as the sport needs to be realistic. But this time around, we all watch, we all wait. It’s gut-wrenching for almost everyone.
Welcome to Daytona.
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