Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth victorious on Thursday.
by Matt Taliaferro
As is usually the case, there was one wild and crazy Gatorade Duel race at Daytona International Speedway, and one much more staid. Such was the case on Thursday, when the field was set for the 54th annual Daytona 500.
Tony Stewart won the first race — the wilder of the two — that ended under caution when Danica Patrick and Aric Almirola got together on the final lap. Patrick’s car made hard contact with the inside SAFER Barrier, but she emerged unhurt.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have had something for Stewart, who led 21 of 60 laps, on the last lap had the race not ended under yellow. Stewart jumped out to a big lead as the field took the white flag. Two drafting lines — the top led by Kevin Harvick and the bottom by Earnhardt — formed behind the reigning series champion.
As Earnhardt and Jeff Burton drafted in the low groove off of Turn 2, it appeared Earnhardt’s Chevy had the momentum to pass Stewart. However, Jamie McMurray made contact with Almirola’s Ford while battling in the pack for ninth place. Almirola then hit Patrick, who slid sideways across the paved-over “infield” on the backstretch, hitting the inside wall and completely destroying her No. 10 Chevrolet.
“It happened really quick,” Patrick said. “We were just looking to finish, to be honest. Unfortunately that was not the case. It felt pretty big … I don’t know what it looked like.”
Patrick will start 29th in Sunday’s 500.
The win was Stewart’s 17th at Daytona, though none have come in the Daytona 500.
“The fact that we’ve won 17 times here and not won on the right day is proof it's good momentum, but it's no guarantee, obviously,” Stewart said. “It's nice to come here, especially for Steve (Addington, crew chief) and I, being our first race together, to be able to come out and have two really good strong and solid races back to back is an awesome start for us.”
Robby Gordon (fourth), in his self-owned No. 7 Dodge, and Michael McDowell (fifth), in a Whitney Motorsports Ford, transferred into Sunday’s field by virtue of racing their way in via the first Duel.
Two other accidents in the first race eliminated the machines of Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, David Gilliland and Michael Waltrip. Waltrip will not race in the 500, as his Sunday qualifying speed was too slow, thus he had to race his way in through the Duel. Montoya, Menard and Gilliland are guaranteed spots but will go to back-up cars.
The second Duel was tame in comparison. There were zero cautions and only five lead changes, as drivers flew in formation for the majority of the event.
Greg Biffle’s powerful Ford started on the pole and led 40 laps. He found himself atop the pylon, leading a single-file, seven-car freight train, until Jimmie Johnson stepped out of line with three laps remaining. Johnson hooked onto Matt Kenseth’s back bumper and the duo made its way to the point as the white flag flew. Biffle threw a block, but the momentum of the Kenseth/Johnson draft was too great.
Biffle faded as a mad scramble for the second spot ensued in Kenseth’s rearview mirror. As Johnson and Regan Smith traded paint, Kenseth separated and drove to a .209-second win, the first for car owner Jack Roush in a Gatorade Duel in 25 years of trying.
“Jimmie Johnson just got hooked to me and was really good to me there and pushed me for that lap and a half and got us up in that position,” Kenseth said. “I was able to get a big run there and hang on to that.
“By the time I got to Turn 2 (on the final lap) I lost Jimmie and I have no idea what happened behind me. Then I was concerned about being too far in front and thankfully nobody was able to really get lined up and make a run on us because I was out there all by myself. I figured I might be a sitting duck.
Regan Smith, Johnson, Elliott Sadler and Biffle rounded out the top 5.
Joe Nemechek raced his self-owned car into the 500 via the second Duel. Dave Blaney, in a Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy, also earned a spot for Sunday’s race.
Roush Fenway teammates Carl Edwards and Biffle locked themselves into the front row for the Daytona 500 by posting the fastest speeds in Sunday’s qualifying round. Drivers that failed to make the race include Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Robert Richardson III, Kenny Wallace, Mike Wallace and J.J. Yeley.