The Duel is on! What Does it Mean Again?

Daytona 500 qualifying is unique in its confusing-ness. It is the only NASCAR Sprint Cup race all season that uses qualifying races to set the lineup instead of just time trials. Today’s Budweiser Duels (SPEED, 2 p.m. ET) — a pair of back-to-back 150-mile races — are just one piece of the puzzle. Here’s a quick overview of what’s at stake and what to watch for.


Why does this matter?


Positions 3-32 in the Daytona 500 starting block will be determined in these races. The highest 15 finishers in each — excluding the polesitter in each race — will earn a spot in the Daytona 500 and fill positions 3-32. Based on finishing position in the Duels, those competing in the first race will line up on the inside row in the odd-number starting positions, while those from the second Duel will line up in the even-number spots.


What about positions 33-43?


Positions 33-36 will be the four fastest drivers in Sunday’s qualifying session who failed to lock themselves in during the Budweiser Duels. Positions 37-42 go to the six cars that didn’t qualify yet but had the highest number of owner points from 2012. The 43rd and final spot is reserved for a past NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who failed to qualify for the race. If no past champion needs the final slot, it will go to the next highest car in 2012 owner points.


Didn’t I just watch qualifying this weekend?


Fair question. Yes, you did. At the Daytona 500, the regular qualifying session only establishes the first two positions for the race. The rest of the order from that qualifying sets the order for the Duels only. Danica Patrick won the pole, and Jeff Gordon is in the second spot.


So what is the race lineup for the Duels?


Here are the full starting grids for the first and second races.


I thought Danica and Jeff Gordon already qualified. Why are they racing in this?


Because they do. The Duels can help drivers get a feel for the track, but it doesn’t come without risk. Any drivers that wreck and have to go to a back-up car have to go to the back of the pack for Sunday’s big race, meaning Danica and Gordon — with nothing to gain from a strong race — may adopt a conservative strategy to stay out of trouble.


So who’s definitely in the Daytona 500?


Thirteen drivers are already locked in. You know about Patrick and Gordon. Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne are guaranteed in on qualifying speed. Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are in on owner points. And Kurt Busch is in as a past champion.


What else should I know?


This is the first year for NASCAR’s Gen-6 cars, meaning a new look and feel for every driver on the course. How the drivers fare in their first race of the year with the new hardware will be a big storyline to watch. You can learn more about the cars in this video.


Other fun Duel facts:


— Qualifying races determined the 500 lineup since the inaugural running in 1959

— The Final lead change came within the final seven laps in seven of the last eight Duel races including four in the final two laps.

— Chevrolet has won at least one Duel race each year since 2001

— Since the Duel became a non-points race (1972), no team has swept both races in a single year

— No driver has won the Unlimited, The 500 Pole, a Duel and The Daytona 500 ever.

— Of the “active drivers” Jeff Gordon has the most Duel Wins with five (5) followed by Bill Elliot with four (4) & Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart each have three (3) wins.

— Of the “active organizations” Richard Childress Racing has the most Duel wins with fourteen (14) followed by Hendrick Motorsports with ten (10) and Joe Gibbs Racing with five (5).


(Statistics from Racing Recall and Racing Insights)


OK, I want to watch. Where do I go?


SPEED is your place for all of today’s action, starting with RaceDay at 1 p.m. ET and the Duels at 2 p.m.