By Jerry Bonkowski
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In the annual renewal of love and hate in one of NASCAR’s most fickle pair of races – otherwise known as the Gatorade Twin 150 Duels qualifying events for Sunday’s Daytona 500 – there once again was plenty of both celebrating for four drivers in particular and heart wrenching disappointment for six others Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.
First, the surprises that made it into Sunday’s Great American Race: Michael McDowell, Robby Gordon, Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek.
They ultimately became a bigger story than the two winners of the Duels, who already had their spots in Sunday’s Daytona 500 assured: defending Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart in the first race Thursday and Matt Kenseth in the second race.
“What a relief,” said Nemechek, who runs his own low-funded team. “People have no clue how hard it is. Even with limited funds, we do a lot. It’s a big day to make the Daytona 500.”
Blaney had an even tougher road to make the 500 than others: team owner Tommy Baldwin sold the owner points his team had accumulated last season to Stewart Haas Racing, allowing Danica Patrick an automatic berth in the 500, forcing Blaney to have to race his way into the 500 instead of enjoying a lock. While Blaney knew it was a business decision for the betterment of – and a big cash infusion for – Tommy Baldwin Racing, but having to survive the Duel was a tough task.
“It’s big for me, but especially the team,” Blaney said. “I felt like we had the team and car to make it. I was more worried about things like a flat tire, me make a mistake coming to the pits and things like that.”
McDowell had one of the hardest paths to make the 500, but he ultimately made it.
“I was extremely anxious the whole time,” McDowell said. “I knew starting 21st, I had to get to the front early on and get in the lead pack.
“It’s hard to be one of 43 (cars) in this sport. It’s been a tough road for me, for sure. Opportunities like this give me an opportunity to show that I belong here hopefully, and hopefully we’ll have a great 500.”
Gordon rounded out the four lucky drivers to make the 500.
“Making the Daytona 500 is the big event for NASCAR racing,” Gordon said. “I’m proud to be here, I’m happy to be racing in NASCAR and I’m looking forward to the 500.”
And then there were the so-called go-or-go-homers that failed in their quest to qualify for one of the four transfer spots that would have taken them into the 500: Michael Waltrip, Mike Wallace, Kenny Wallace, Robert Richardson, J.J. Yeley and former Cup champ Bill Elliott.
Waltrip’s case was particularly sad, as the former two-time Daytona 500 winner saw his string of 25 consecutive 500 appearances broken. It also marks the first time since 1972 that a driver named Waltrip – either Michael or long-retired older brother Darrell – has not been in the 43-car 500 starting grid.
Michael Waltrip saw his chances evaporate when he lost control coming out of the pits and solo-crashed into the outside retaining wall near Turn 2.
“I’m thankful to have a Plan B because I’ll be with you guys (in the Fox TV broadcast booth),” Waltrip said in a post-race interview. “I got down on the apron when I was supposed to be on the track. I just made a mistake. I went the wrong way.”
As for Thursday’s individual races, defending Cup champ Stewart picked up where he left off at the end of last season, leading 21 of the 60 laps, to take the checkered flag. He was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who looked like he might win, only to fall off the pace coming down the frontstretch on the final lap.
Stewart has now won 17 times at Daytona International Speedway across several racing series, but has never won the biggest prize of all, the Daytona 500. Thursday’s result may help him finally achieve that elusive goal.
“Obviously, the fact that we’ve won 17 times here and not won on the right day is proof it’s good momentum (to win the 500), but it’s no guarantee, obviously,” Stewart said. “It’s a long race on Sunday and a lot can happen. Even though we had success today, it’s no guarantee that can happen Sunday.
“I think we showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed. That’s a really strong point, just like Trevor Bayne showed last year that he had a strong car, so people wanted to go with him. Hopefully that will work for us on Sunday, too.”
Marcos Ambrose finished third, followed by Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, McDowell, Kevin Harvick, A.J. Allmendinger, Robby Gordon and Jamie McMurray.
In the second race, winner Matt Kenseth was followed by Regan Smith, Jimmie Johnson, Elliott Sadler, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne.
It was the first Gatorade Duel win for Roush Fenway Racing.
“Yeah, that is great,” Kenseth said. “I’m glad to finally have won one of these races. … Thankfully, our Ford Fusion was really fast. Once we got up to the front, if I could stay toward the bottom and keep somebody sort of close to my back bumper, we had a lot of speed, which makes it a lot easier.”
In a somewhat surprising move, even though Robby Gordon raced his way into the 500, he still criticized NASCAR for giving automatic berths/exemptions to the most recent past Cup champion. In this case, it was Terry Labonte, who won the second of two Cup crowns in 1996.
Gordon, who has a small team with only 10 employees, said that other small teams should have had the opportunity to race their way into the 500, and that the past champion’s exemption is something whose time has passed and should be eliminated.
The situation was heightened when Labonte dropped out of the first Duel early on, knowing that his place in the 500 was secured, because his team had no other backup car and didn’t want to risk getting into a wreck that could have potentially knocked him out of the 500 (if another car couldn’t have been found).
“Obviously, I’ve got a lot of respect for Terry,” Gordon said. “This is not a Terry Labonte thing. But, there’s only eight cars (outside of the top 35 in owners points at the end of 2011 that earned automatic berths) that make the Daytona 500. He takes one of those spots; now (just) seven guys make the Daytona 500. Four make it on qualifying races, three make it on speed.
“It’s just not right. Why take a free ride when the rest of us have to bust our butts to get in the 500? It is what it is. It’s the rules. Like I said, we don’t make the rules, we just play by them – and sometimes you can manipulate them.”
(For The Sports Xchange)