Who…gets my shoutout of the race?
Duel 1: Sure, he’s running for the team who took the big teams to school in the Daytona 500 in 2011, but Ryan Blaney only has a handful of Cup races under his belt, and he’s been impressive in most of them. Despite making two pit stops in his Duel race, Blaney was able to stay on the lead lap with help from the free pass, and when it counted at the end, he was moving forward and dicing it up with the favorites for the win. It was a good third-place showing by Blaney, who has already proven he can do a lot with the Wood Brothers single-car operation.
Duel 2: Like Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto already had a spot in the Great American Race secured, but he wanted more — like a top 10 more. DiBenedetto, making his first Daytona 500 attempt for BK Racing, ran a smart, solid race all night long and made it pay off with his ninth-place result. DiBenedetto quietly made himself into BK Racing’s best driver last season, and with veteran David Ragan to lean on this time around, he could be a sleeper surprise in 2016.
What…is the takeaway from the Duels?
After a long off-season for fans, it’s kind of a shame that the first stop on the NASCAR circuit is Daytona and the game of roulette that restrictor-plate racing has become. It’s almost a letdown because there’s so much buildup, so many expectations, but in the end, it’s a game of chance, avoiding trouble and running in front at the end. It’s unfortunate that NASCAR did all it could to eliminate the tandem drafts we saw briefly a few years ago — while there was perhaps too much importance on having the right partner, drivers could pass, including at the front, and pileups involved, in general, fewer cars. That style of racing was unpopular with some fans, but it was better than what we’ve seen since. NASCAR put a lot of focus on improving intermediate-track racing over the last couple of years; perhaps now it’s time to fix plate racing as well.
Where…did the go or go home drivers wind up?
Michael McDowell and Josh Wise to duke it out for the other spot available from the first race. Whitt and McDowell staged a fantastic back-and-forth battle for the honors for the first two thirds of the race, but Whitt’s bid ended early when he got a tap from David Ragan, sending the No. 98 spinning. That left McDowell and Wise, and while Wise did all he could, when Blaney got past McDowell there was nothing more he could do.
Duel 2: The only open driver not having to sweat in out in the second race was youngster Matt DiBenedetto, whose qualifying time was good enough to secure a spot. David Gilliland, Reed Sorenson and Robert Richardson, Jr. weren’t so lucky. And at the end of the night, Sorenson and Gilliland were feeling less lucky still. DiBenedetto raced his way into the Daytona 500, giving Richardson the other spot based on his qualifying speed, despite finishing behind Gilliland in the race.
When…did it all go sideways?
Duel 1: You have to feel for Cole Whitt, who showed he had the chops to race for a spot in the big show only to get turned, but not only did Brian Scott go for a wild ride heading to the checkers, it also went largely unnoticed by the broadcast. Scott will race Sunday regardless, but it would be nice to see FOX let fans know that he was OK right away.
Duel 2: What’s harder to take as a driver, getting caught up in a last-lap crash or running out of fuel knowing you could win? Probably a toss-up. The former was a case of tight-quarters plate racing: Jamie McMurray was trying to squeeze up and make a run on the final lap and it was a matter of “I’ve got room, I’m going for it!” and Jimmie Johnson’s “There’s no more room, dude!” Johnson had to jump on the brakes, and, well, that’s never going to end well in the pack on a plate track. Then there was Casey Mears’ fuel situation. Mears was running second with under three laps left and showing he had the chops to challenge when his fuel cell ran dry. He showed he’s got a car capable of winning on Sunday, but can he come from the back to do it? And can Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex, Jr. and AJ Allmendinger get it done in backup cars? You can bank on it that none of them wanted to have to come up with those answers.
Why…did Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch win the races?
Duel 1: There were a couple of factors at play in Earnhardt’s win. One, he’s an excellent plate racer and was able to take young teammate Chase Elliott to school early to take the lead. Maybe a little of the credit goes to his favorite superspeedway car, Amelia, too. From there it was game on. The days when a group of drivers could line up and power past the leader seem to be, at least for the time being, over, and the lines, even with significant steam, tend to stall out shy of the front.
Duel 2: Busch had a stout car all night, and that kept him at the front when chaos broke out in his rear-view mirror. It certainly helped Busch that his biggest challengers ran out of fuel and wrecked behind him, but when track position is as important late in the game as it is at Daytona right now, Busch was able to put his car in front of the field, and like Earnhardt, he rode that all the way to Victory Lane.
How…much does a driver’s starting spot really matter in the Daytona 500?
Well…not much, really, but more than in past plate races. Over the course of 500 miles on a plate track, drivers will move forward and fall back multiple times in the draft, and a good one can gain several sports quickly. Where it gets tricky is at the front. It used to be that the front was the last place a driver wanted to be in the closing laps on a restrictor-plate track, but that’s no longer the case. Since NASCAR did away with the tandem drafting that vexed some viewers, action up front hasn’t been so fast and furious. Even with a fast line and plenty of cars moving forward, it’s likely they’ll stall out before being able to make a run at the leader. The Sprint Unlimited, despite a lot of crash action and a few drivers being able to make up a lot of ground in traffic, featured only three leaders and one of those, Jimmie Johnson, led the field to green but didn’t lead a lap. Plate racing may be close-quarters, but passing the leader is an exercise in frustration most of the time — unlike the tandems, where a pair could move up like quicksilver and make a show of it.
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