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Making Daytona’s big show



Qualifying at every other stop on the schedule except the season opening Daytona 500 is quick and easy to figure out. It’s a matter of drawing a spot to go out and then when it is your turn on the track, go as fast as you can.

At most tracks qualifying is usually over in less than an hour, but at Daytona the process goes from front row qualifying this past Sunday all the way to tomorrow (Thursday) when the Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races are held.

Yes, Daytona does have the same routine that is followed at every other track on the schedule, but that is only the beginning of setting the field. Sunday was the day that everybody got to run two laps to see where they stood on speed. When it was over Martin Truex Jr. had posted the fastest time of the day, followed by Mark Martin.

While every driver’s speed was important — and for some it will mean either making the race or going home — only Truex and Martin were guaranteed their starting spots for the 51st running of the 500. The rest of the field will not be determined until after both qualifying races on Thursday.

Spots 3-39 in the starting lineup will come from 33 of the remaining top 35 in last season’s owner’s points, with the next four spots being filled by the four highest finishing drivers in Thursday’s qualifying race that aren’t already locked into the field. That leaves four spots, with three filled by the next fastest qualifiers and the final spot belonging to the most recent series champion not already in the field. Terry Labonte appears to be the past champion in line for that slot.

Three drivers — Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil and Tony Stewart — don’t have the luxury of being in a top-35 car from last season, but all three are already locked in the starting field by posting the three fastest times among drivers outside the top 35. They could improve their starting positions by driving their way in with their finish in their Duel that would open it up for the next fastest qualifiers.

Regan Smith, Joe Nemechek and Boris Said have the next fastest times, and you can bet they are pulling for Elliott, Kvapil and Stewart to drive their way in instead of using their qualifying times.

Fourteen drivers are left the tough task of driving their way into the field by where they finish in the qualifying races. To them, Thursday’s race is their 500 and they can’t afford to leave anything on the table as they must push both the cars and themselves to the limit if they want the opportunity to start in the sport’s biggest show.

Qualifying, like the Budweiser Shootout, is just another aspect of the week that makes the Daytona 500 the Superbowl of the sport. In some ways the week is like a marathon but yet in another way it is just a sprint as everything about the high-banked track screams speed. When the green flag finally waves on Sunday to start the 500, for some in the field it’s like waving the checkered flag as Daytona’s qualifying is an event in itself!

PIT PASS: Kevin Harvick’s win in the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday may or may not give him an advantage going into the 500. Only five times since the first Shootout in 1979 has a driver won both races in the same year. The last driver to accomplish the double was Dale Jarrett in 2000. Harvick already knows how to win the 500 as he edged Mark Martin by just inches in 2007 to claim the sport’s biggest prize. The win also put Harvick in the history books as being the winner with the lowest starting spot (34th). Harvick’s win from such a low starting position definitely went against the odds as 79.5 percent of all the Cup race winners have come from a top-10 starting position, with 55 percent coming from a top-5 start.

Tony Stewart quickly removed any doubt about Stewart-Haas Racing being ready when it unloaded at Daytona. Stewart finished third in the Budweiser Shootout, but both he and teammate Ryan Newman really flexed some muscle on qualifying day. Newman posted the third fastest speed on the day with Stewart posting the 10th. The team gets its chassis and motors from Hendrick Motorsports, but hangs its own sheet metal.

Race Preview — Event: Daytona 500. Track: Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile tri-oval, 31 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: Feb. 15, 3:30 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Ryan Newman.

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