Pressure on for final Daytona spots

Obviously, when we came down to Daytona last week at the start of Speedweeks, there were 35 drivers and teams that enjoyed the comfort of knowing they were locked into Sunday’s Daytona 500 on FOX.

Being in the top 35 in owners points last year was crucial. Now those teams are enjoying the rewards of all their hard work last season.

After last Sunday’s qualifying session, three of the 14 remaining drivers and teams that were not locked into the race are breathing a very huge sigh of relief. Their qualifying times were fast enough to lock them into our biggest race of the year.

Last year’s defending Daytona 500 champion, Trevor Bayne, ironically, was one of those three. You have to understand that his No. 21 team, owned by the legendary Wood brothers, didn’t run all the races last year because of lack of sponsorship, so they were not locked into this year’s Daytona 500. Well, that all changed last Sunday.

Quite honestly, Bayne’s car was fast enough that he possibly could have won the pole this year. However, the luck of the qualifying draw and the high winds we had last Sunday worked against him. Sure, he is disappointed, but, trust me, he isn’t losing any sleep over not winning the pole because the bigger issue was simply making the race.

One of the things I love about Daytona every year are the feel-good stories that come up out of nowhere and capture people’s imaginations. Tony Raines and David Stremme are two of those stories for the 2012 Daytona 500. Raines is with a team that, quite honestly, probably doesn’t have anywhere near the funding it needs. To take that a step further, David Stremme is with a team that literally didn’t exist last year at this time. Now, both these drivers and teams are locked into the NASCAR version of the Super Bowl.

On the other side of that coin, you have drivers such as Kenny and Mike Wallace; Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner; Joe Nemechek; and Bill Elliott. For them, it all comes down to the Duel races. They literally have to race their way into the Daytona 500.

Obviously, last Sunday was about having enough speed out there by yourself when you were making your qualifying run. The two Duel races Thursday are about having enough speed running in a pack. So those are two different scenarios.

I mean, look at Kyle Busch. Sure, it was a different car, but last Saturday night in the Budweiser Shootout, he went to Victory Lane. The very next day in qualifying, the best he had was only good enough for 28th.

So, for the guys still trying to race their way into the Daytona 500, Thursday is all or nothing. They can only hope they work their strategy correctly, that their pit stops are flawless and they can put themselves in the right position at the end of either Duel race so that they are in to be in front of the other "go or go-homers" who could take their spots.

Like I mentioned in our NASCAR on FOX qualifying show last year, no driver or team ever wants to work so hard and miss any race. Multiply that by 1,000 when it comes to going home from not making the Daytona 500. I am very blessed and fortunate to say, as a crew chief, I never came down here and ever missed the Daytona 500. So I cannot even imagine the agony of going through all you do just to get here, but then have to pack up and go home to watch the Daytona 500 on TV.

These teams and drivers that are on the edge of staying or going home after Thursday’s races worked just as hard and put in just as many long hours as those well-funded super teams.

So we are down to it. Six drivers will face the pain of having to help their team load up and go back home Thursday evening. Who will it be? The list of teams having to race their way in Thursday features Daytona 500 winners, past NASCAR champions, race winners etc. There is a lot of experience in that group, and, trust me, they all know what they have to do Thursday.

You hate to see anyone go home, but the reality is come Thursday evening, there are going to be some really happy folks and then some really unhappy folks. It simply has to be bone-crushing not to make the Daytona 500. The box is only big enough to take 43 drivers to start the Great American Race on Sunday on FOX.