The stars of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series duked it out on Thursday night (Feb. 15) in the Can-Am Duels to determine Sunday’s starting lineup for the Daytona 500. Only 40 cars entered the Great American Race this year, so for the first time in a long time, no one was sent home.
In the early days of the Daytona 500, the Duels, or what used to be the Twin 125s (along with other names over the years) were an absolute necessity. There were times when more than 70 cars showed up for the Super Bowl of stock car racing, nearly double the starting field we see today.
Of course, that is simply too many cars to allow in. 68 cars raced in the 1960 Daytona 500, and it resulted in 25 failing to finish. Could you imagine how many would fail to complete races in the restrictor plate/crash clock era?
Two qualifying laps is not a good way to decide who makes a race at a track where drafting is essential, so the Duels were needed. These qualifying races also serve as a nice connection to NASCAR’s grassroots, as many local short tracks have heat races before the main event.
The Duels were a lot of fun in the past because they led to some of the most dramatic moments of the year. There were always times where an underdog would barely squeak into the race, with the driver and team achieving the goal of a lifetime. Who can forget when Brad Keselowski pushed his brother, Brian, to make it into the race as a family-run team?
But now, in the age of charters, we have only enough cars show up to fill all the spots. So that begs the question, with no one missing the race and starting positions not really mattering at a track like Daytona: Do we still need the Duels?
Based on what we saw Thursday night, the answer is yes.
The Duels might not have meant anything, with restrictor plates making it easy to jump from 35th to the lead on Sunday in just a few laps. All drivers who started these races made the field, so there wasn’t the drama of that dreaded DNQ.
But the bottom line is these Duels give another excuse to have some races at Daytona. The Clash and the All-Star Race mean nothing as well, and the latter is usually a terrible event. But as exhibition races of sorts, it is still a breath of fresh air to have them on the schedule. The Duels actually mean slightly more than those races, too. Points are awarded to the top-10 finishers, a small amount that could still make the difference by Indy in early September.
Seeing the Duels actually makes me wish they had heat races every weekend just so we would get more racing, even if it was all for nothing.
The drivers of the first Duel (the second one was pretty lame) also proved how deeply competitive they are. Even with next-to-nothing on the line, they still wanted to satisfy their team and ego by beating everyone else.
How could you not enjoy watching as Darrell Wallace Jr. pushed his best friend Ryan Blaney to a thrilling victory? How could it not entertain you to see Ricky Stenhouse Jr. invent a new style of drafting with this new package where you wreck other competitors without damaging yourself? It might have pissed off the drivers he was competing against. But Stenhouse made the race much more exciting than it would have been without his antics.
What we saw Thursday night was racers being racers. There were no playoffs, no stage points, and no other gimmicks.
The Duels will never again be the heat races that they once were. It pains me to say that, but it is just the way that the state of the sport shaped them. That does not mean they cannot be enjoyable races, though.
So let’s keep the Duels on the schedule for a little while longer. Spend your time instead reevaluating some of the much larger problems in the sport.
Fixing them will actually make a real difference.