Needing to race his way into the 500 via Thursday night’s first Can-Am Duel qualifying race, Whitt spun out in Turn 1 with 18 of 60 laps remaining while aggressively harassing the back bumper of Michael McDowell — another driver unsure of his status for Sunday’s main event.
Turns out, though, that McDowell actually made the big show by virtue of being the fastest qualifier in Thursday’s race who wasn’t named Ryan Blaney.
That’s because Blaney — who had the option of falling back on his qualifying speed, if needed — automatically locked up a spot in the 500 as a result of being the highest finisher among the four Open drivers in the first Duel.
Blaney, a second-generation driver competing in his first full season for the famed Wood Brothers, complained of a vibration on Lap 18, was forced to pit with a loose left-rear wheel under green at the race’s halfway point and lost a lap before ultimately batting back to finish third behind winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and second-place Joey Logano.
“We were locked in (the 500) before, but it is kind of nice to feel like we raced our way in," Blaney said. "We had a really fast race car and we had our couple of problems early in the race which got us a lap down, and luckily we got a caution at the right point which got us back on the lead lap to where we could go racing for it."
While Whitt headed for the garage not long after his spin, McDowell went on to finish 14th in the 22-car field, although it ultimately had no bearing on his status for the 500. The only other Open driver — that is, driver not automatically in the 500 based on the rules of NASCAR’s new Charter System — in Duel No. 1 was Josh Wise, who finished 17th and like Whitt will miss the 500.
“It’s so intense," McDowell said. "In the end we just dug hard. We’re just so excited for everybody. I can’t tell you what it means to make the Daytona 500.”