Field set for the 53rd Daytona 500
by Matt Taliaferro
Two-car drafts continued to be the story of Speedweeks on Thursday, when the field for the 53rd Daytona 500 was set via the Gatorade Duel races.
Duel No. 1 came down to a green-white-checker finish when Michael McDowell’s engine blew with five laps remaining, setting the stage for frantic two-lap shootout.
Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne took the green lined up on the first row but quickly locked nose-to-tail in the low groove, with Kahne in the lead. However, third-place Kurt Busch and race-long drafting buddy Regan Smith wasted no time in overtaking the Kahne/Montoya duo, shooting to the lead on the backstretch with Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth in tow.
As Busch and Smith took the white flag, a gaggle of cars mixed it up for second behind them, allowing Busch, last Saturday’s Shootout winner, to pull away with Smith locked to his bumper. With the field well behind them, Smith faked high, then dipped low on the tri-oval in an attempt to pass, but Busch threw a block, halting his unofficial teammate’s momentum and scoring his second win in six days at Daytona.
“To be in those positions, you have to have a good drafting partner,” Busch explained. “I had that with Regan Smith today, had it with McMurray on Saturday night. You can't be in those positions if you don't build a great racecar.
So I'm really excited. Again, I can't get too far ahead of myself because this is Daytona and this place can jump up and bite you pretty quick. But we are going to ride this wave. We've made the right decisions so far with all of our adjustments on our car, adapting to the rule changes with restrictor plate sizes, grill-opening sizes. This is a new era at Daytona in my mind.”
Smith held on for second in the final rundown, followed by Harvick, Kenseth and Kahne. Bill Elliott and J.J. Yeley claimed the two transfer spots into the 500. Busch will line up in the first starting position on Sunday due to pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. going to a backup car because of a wreck in practice.
The second Duel was thriller, with multiple accidents, underdog stories and a scrum for the win highlighting the 150-miler.
Jeff Gordon and rookie Trevor Bayne started on the front row and worked in-tandem throughout the event, leading laps only to fall mid-pack on restarts, then rebound towards the front. The Gordon/Bayne duo, along with Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, as well as Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, comprised the lead pack through the majority of the race.
Much like the first Duel, the second came down to a shootout. A wreck involving Todd Bodine and Steve Wallace with five laps remaining bunched up the field, setting the table for a three-lap sprint to the checkers.
Burton and Bowyer brought the pack to green and, as in the first Duel, quickly lock-stepped into formation in an attempt to draft away from the field. After a quick battle for positions, though, Michael Waltrip, Kyle Busch and brothers Brian and Brad Keselowski lined up single file and ran down Burton and Bowyer.
The six cars remained nose-to-tail until they hit the tri-oval with the checkered flag in the air. Bowyer shot high to get by his teammate, but came up just shy, losing by .005 seconds. All the while, Gordon, Bayne and David Ragan swept one another up in an accident in the back of the pack. Bayne and Ragan will go to backup cars for the 500, Gordon will not, thus keeping his front-row starting spot for Sunday’s race.
“We have to keep in perspective that this is not the Daytona 500,” Burton said. “It's great to be in Victory Lane, (we’re) real proud of that. Last year, obviously, was very influencing toward the end of the year. Kept ourselves in position to win races but never made it happen. Put ourselves in position, I thought we were in great shape to win the other night (bud Shootout), but to win tonight means a great deal. That's what drove us nuts last year. It's good to get that off our back and prove to ourselves we can do it.
“I think, obviously, the Daytona 500 is the first hurdle. There's the Daytona 500, a championship, (the) two biggest things on my list I want to get done. Hopefully we're just one step closer to that.”
Bowyer was second in the final showing, followed by Waltrip, Busch and Brian Keselowski in fifth. Waltrip and Keselowski were not already qualified for the 500, but raced their way in with top-5 showings.
Keselowski was the media darling of event. An independent entry, Keselowski’s No. 92 “team” employs himself, his father and an uncle. The 29-year old Keselowski reckoned the car he drove to the fifth-place finish was five years old, a machine that once was part of the now-defunct Evernham Motorsports’ fleet. A part-time Nationwide Series driver, he’ll line up 12th in his first Cup Series start in Sunday’s Daytona 500.