It's unlike any other race. As is its qualifying procedure.
Setting the starting lineup for the Daytona 500 can be a trial of confusion for those that choose not to read the syllabus. And let’s be honest, that’s why you’re reading this, right? You want the CliffsNotes.
Fair enough. So allow me to explain this as painlessly as possible.
In the beginning — in this case, Sunday — a battery of 45 cars took to the track in qualifying, yet only two machines locked in their spots on the grid. In case you hadn’t heard, Danica Patrick qualified her No. 10 Chevy on the pole with a lap of 196.434 mph. She, along with Jeff Gordon (who posted the second quickest time) will, by history’s standards, comprise the front row. Note that if either has to go to a back-up car after Thursday’s Duel races, they’ll be forced to start at the rear of the field in the 500.
“Duel races?” you’re asking. “What are they and how do they factor?”
OK, qualifying for the Daytona 500 is a bit different from any ol’ weekend on the NASCAR circuit. For the 500, two Duel races will determine positions 3-32. Yes, they actually split the 45 cars that have shown up into two groups (based on even and odd positions in Sunday’s qualifying times) and cut ’em loose for 150 miles.
In those two races, the highest finishing 15 cars from each race (excluding our buddies Danica and Jeff) earn their spots for the big show. The top 15 finishers in the first Duel will line up in the inside lane for the 500; the top 15 in Duel No. 2 occupy the outside lane.
“Now wait,” you’re saying, “Danica and Gordon … do they have to race in those events? After all, you told us just a minute ago that they’re locked in up front.”
True enough. And yes, they do. However, they don’t have to play it fast and loose. In fact, with front row spots all but locked in, each may be wise to drop to the rear of the field and let the chaos happen well in front of them. However, that’s another column for another day.
“OK, so we’ve got a field of 32. Isn’t this a 43-car race?”
Yep. And it gets even more fun here. Positions 33-36 are awarded to the four fastest cars from qualifying that have not yet earned a spot. A hypothetical: Ryan Newman, who had the fourth fastest time on pole day has a tire go flat in his Duel and drops a lap down, eventually finishing 19th. Since he did not qualify via the Duel, yet had a fast qualifying time, he’s in.
“Gotcha. So there’s 36 cars … can it get any more complicated?”
Not too much, but positions 37-42 are called “provisionals” and go to the highest six cars in 2012 owner points not already in. And as for the 43rd? That can go one of two ways: Either a past series champion who made a start in 2012 (and not already qualified) gets it, or — if there’s no past champ — it is assigned to the next highest car in owner points from 2012.
“I suppose. So how do they go about setting the field next week at Phoenix, and the week after in Las Vegas?”
Oh that. Yeah, it’s this astonishingly simplistic method of just taking the fastest 36 and assigning the rest via provisionals. How arcane, right?