NASCAR

Qualifying guide: New system adds drama for drivers outside the top 35 in points

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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Daytona 500 qualifying procedure is new and different. The whole NASCAR on FOX crew will work very hard at explaining the system. Click here for a Daytona qualifying checklist to follow along while watching the roll for the pole on FOX at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.
Sun., Feb. 20, 1 p.m. ET


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  • Who to Watch

  • Hendrick power:Jeff Gordon will be a contender in qualifying. Don't rule out cars like Joe Nemechek, Scott Riggs and Boris Said that use Hendrick engines. Nemechek sat on the last restrictor plate pole at Talladega in October.
  • Roush/Yates power: The two Yates cars, Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler, will be contenders, and Greg Biffle will be strong as he goes for his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole.
  • Dale Earnhardt Inc.: Typically the DEI stuff is not that potent on qualifying day. Don't get me wrong. They qualify well, but they normally aren't pole contenders. It's going to be Hendrick power vs. Roush/Yates power on qualifying day.
  • Teams outside the top 35 in points: Besides who sits on the pole, the drama on qualifying day will be determining the fastest four cars that are not among the top 35 teams in 2004 owner points. In 2005, the top 35 drivers in points will guaranteed starting positions, no matter where they qualify. Drivers like John Andretti, Kerry Earnhardt, Jason Leffler and Boris Said are not guaranteed starting spots so if they are the fastest four cars that are not in the top 35 in points, they will at least clinch the 40th through 43rd starting positions in the Daytona 500.
  • What to Watch

  • Unpredictable weather: Daytona is different than Talladega, which usually has consistent track conditions from start to finish. Conditions can change several times over the course of a Daytona qualifying session. The wind can pick up and go from a tailwind to a headwind down the backstretch. When we go to Lowe's Motor Speedway everybody wants to draw a late number — a high number — because the track gains grip as it gets cooler and darker. At Daytona, there's no way of predicting whether a high, middle or low number is good because the wind could be blowing midway through the session and still at the beginning and the end.
  • Thursday's qualifying races, Thursday, 1 p.m. ET on FX: The drama in each of Thursday's qualifying races will come down to the two highest-running cars that are not in the top 35 in points, whether they are running 20th or battling for the lead. For example, let's say Kerry Earnhardt loses an engine in qualifying and doesn't have a very good speed to fall back on, he has to race his way into the Daytona 500. If he happens to be in the same race as John Andretti and Jason Leffler, and Leffler wins the 150 with Andretti finishing second, Earnhardt can finish third but miss the Daytona 500. The new system rewards you for finishing high in the 150.
    Speed Mail Larry McReynolds
    In the old 125-mile qualifying races, drivers simply raced to get into the top 15. Now, you're really racing guys that are in your little group of cars that aren't in the top 35. In other words, Earnhardt will ask his crew chief and spotter where Andretti and Jason Leffler are. It changes the complexion of the race. The drama is still there; it's just a different kind of drama. If I'm a crew chief for a driver who has to race his way into the Daytona 500, I hope to break the race in half. If I get a caution around the halfway point, I will be able to take full advantage of the tires for both runs. But those races have been known to go caution-free so the drama becomes, "When do I pit?" And you obviously want a partner. You don't want to pit by yourself and be hung out to dry. It has a lot of potential to be pretty dramatic.

  • FOX race analyst Larry McReynolds has more than 25 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, crew chief and broadcaster. He and his fellow Crew Chief Club members take you behind the wall at www.crewchiefclub.com.

    "Larry McReynolds: The Big Picture" is on bookstore shelves now, or you may order your own autographed copy from www.DWStore.com.

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