It's a new year but the same old complex qualifying mess for NASCAR when it comes to the 2021 Daytona 500. After both Duel qualifying races, the full 40-car field is locked in for the race (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX). But for new fans, the same question always comes up.
How'd they do it?
Daytona qualifying began on Wednesday night with one-lap time trials to set the front row for this year's race. Alex Bowman took the pole position for Hendrick Motorsports with William Byron alongside. Those two were "locked in" to the field from that point on even if they never completed a lap in the Duel qualifying races.
But Byron will start Sunday's main event from the rear of the field. Why? He wrecked in his Duel qualifying race and needs to go to a backup car; NASCAR rules state you give up your starting spot once that happens.
That means Austin Dillon will work his way onto the front row as the winner of the second Duel qualifying event. He and Aric Almirola took the checkered flag in those races, earning 10 extra points apiece to start the year. Those set the field for spots 3-38 on the 40-car grid. (For example, if you finished second in Duel No. 1, you wound up starting fifth).
Here's where it gets complicated. No matter what, due to NASCAR's Charter system, 36 cars are guaranteed a spot for every event. It means that even if someone is the slowest qualifier, then crashes out in their Duel race, they'll be put near the back of the field. Josh Bilicki didn't even finish, for example, overheating in Duel No. 1 but he'll start the Daytona 500 from 37th place.
Those Charters leave eight drivers fighting for four spots on the grid. Those remaining drivers qualify in two ways. First, the highest-finishing car among that group from each Duel qualifying race earns their starting position based on where they finished. Next, we go back to Wednesday's qualifying speeds in order to fill the 39th and 40th spot on the grid. Austin Cindric and Kaz Grala rounded out the field as the fastest drivers who hadn't already secured a spot.
Forty-four (44) cars showed up to qualify for the Daytona 500, meaning four drivers missed the race. MBM Motorsports suffered the biggest blow, with Garrett Smithley and Timmy Hill both failing to make the field in separate Duel races. Smithley was involved in a multi-car accident in his event, making contact with Brad Keselowski as the resulting wreck eliminated several cars.
One of those affected was Noah Gragson, whose No. 62 Beard Motorsports team may have just run its final Cup Series race. But the fourth DNQ, Ty Dillon, may have been the biggest heartbreak of all. He was in position to transfer almost the entire 60 laps in his Duel qualifying event; however, in the final two turns, Ryan Preece scooted past and beat Dillon to the line by mere feet. It's the second straight heartbreaker for a Gaunt Brothers No. 96 team who missed with Daniel Suarez in 2020.
1. Alex Bowman
2. William Byron*
3. Aric Almirola
4. Austin Dillon
5. Christopher Bell
6. Bubba Wallace
7. Ryan Newman
8. Kevin Harvick
9. Joey Logano
10. Kyle Busch
11. Ryan Preece
12. Chase Elliott
13. Kyle Larson
14. Ryan Blaney
15. Daniel Suarez
16. Corey Lajoie
17. Michael McDowell
18. David Ragan
19. Jamie McMurray
20. Kurt Busch
21. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
22. Chris Buescher
23. Matt DiBenedetto
24. Brad Keselowski*
25. Denny Hamlin
26. Martin Truex Jr.
27. Cole Custer*
28. Joey Gase
29. Tyler Reddick
30. Chase Briscoe (R)*
31. Erik Jones
32. Derrike Cope
33. Quin Houff
34. Ross Chastain*
35. Cody Ware
36. Anthony Alfredo (R)*
37. Josh Bilicki
38. BJ McLeod (i)
39. Austin Cindric (i)
40. Kaz Grala*
(R) – Rookie
(i) – Ineligible to collect Cup Series points
* - Starting at the rear with a backup car
- Alex Bowman earned his third career pole position in the Cup Series; two of them have come in the Daytona 500 (2018, '21). Hendrick Motorsports has now won six of the last seven poles for the Great American Race.
- Aric Almirola (3rd) won the first Daytona Duel qualifying race of his career.
- Austin Dillon (4th) put the No. 3 in victory lane through the Duels 20 years after the Daytona death of NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt in that car.
- Christopher Bell (5th) makes his debut behind the wheel of Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 Toyota. It's the best start of his Cup career.
- Bubba Wallace (6th) led three laps in his Duel qualifying race. The Daytona 500 marks the debut of 23XI Racing, a team co-owned by former NBA star Michael Jordan and current Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin.
- Ryan Newman (7th) starts his first Daytona 500 after this horrifying crash at the finish last February that left him with a bruised brain.
- Ryan Preece (11th) was the first of the "open" drivers to earn a starting spot. He was fifth in Duel No. 1.
- Kyle Larson (13th) starts his first Cup race since prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in a new ride: the No. 5 of Hendrick Motorsports. Larson was fired from Chip Ganassi Racing last April for his use of a racial slur.
- Daniel Suarez (15th) will make his debut for a new team, Trackhouse Racing, with sponsorship from iFly.
- Corey Lajoie (16th) runs his first race for Spire Motorsports and the No. 7 Chevrolet after moving on from Go FAS Racing's No. 32.
- David Ragan (18th) was the second "open" driver to earn a spot. It's his first Cup race since running fourth in last year's Daytona 500.
- Jamie McMurray (19th) will run the second Spire Motorsports car in his first Cup race since the 2019 Daytona 500.
- Denny Hamlin (25th) is the defending race winner and will attempt to make history Sunday by earning three straight Daytona 500 trophies.
- Chase Briscoe (30th) was the highest-qualifying rookie. Just two freshmen (Anthony Alfredo – 36th) have declared for this year's award.
- Derrike Cope (32nd), the 1990 Daytona 500 winner, is running the final Cup race of his career.
- Austin Cindric (39th) was the third open car to make it in the race. The reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion will make his Cup debut driving a fourth car for Team Penske.
- Kaz Grala (40th) will make his first Daytona 500 start. He's driving a limited Cup schedule for Kaulig Racing this season after a surprise top-10 finish subbing for Austin Dillon at the Daytona Road Course last summer put him on the map.
NASCAR RACE BREAKDOWN
Race: Daytona 500
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Date: Sunday, Feb. 14
TV: FOX, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 200 laps (500 miles)
Stage 1: 65 Laps
Stage 2: 65 Laps
Final Stage: 70 Laps
Tom Bowles and Davey Segal set the stage for the 2021 Daytona 500 in the new, revamped Frontstretch Podcast. Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks also stops by to describe his fresh ownership vision with the No. 99 and driver Daniel Suarez.