Six of the guaranteed Daytona 500 entries — Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth — are locked in based on where their teams finished in 2014 owner points.
A final driver, Tony Stewart, is certain to start the Daytona 500 because he is the most recent Sprint Cup Series champion not locked in the race by other means.
So of the 49 drivers who showed up at Daytona International Speedway, only 13 have punched their ticket to Sunday’s crown jewel of all stock-car races.
No wonder so much tension is in the air heading into Thursday night’s 150-mile qualifiers (7 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1). It’s also no surprise that how one approaches Thursday night is largely dictated by whether he’s assured of being in the Daytona 500.
For those not locked in the big show, one wreck, blown motor or bad move on Thursday night could be the difference between getting to race for NASCAR’s most prized winner’s trophy or going home early.
"I think the goal is to win the race," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will drop to the rear of the field for Thursday’s first Duel after his No. 88 Chevrolet flunked last Sunday’s post-qualifying inspection. "I’ve have that sort of discussion going on in my head every since we got through qualifying. You don’t want to tear the car up, but the goal is to go out there and win the race. It just feels wrong to worry more about keeping the car in one piece than winning an event. You’re in that event to compete and to win. If we were locked in the front row, we might have a different opinion about that. But we’re not."
Earnhardt can solidify a spot on the Daytona 500 grid by finishing 15th or better in his Duel — no matter what anyone else does. If Gordon — who is already locked in the 500 — finishes Duel One in the top 15, Earnhardt could finish as low as 16th and still be guaranteed entry into the 500th. The same is also true for every other driver in Duel One, from which the winner — unless it’s Gordon — will start the Daytona 500 from the third position.
Likewise, the top 15 or 16 finishers from Duel Two are all assured of making the Daytona 500, and the winner — unless it’s Johnson — will start fourth on Sunday.
Taken altogether, the highest 15 finishers in each Duel race — excluding the already locked-in front row — will fill out positions 3-32 in the starting lineup for the Daytona 500.
Positions 33-36 will belong to the four fastest drivers from any of last Sunday’s knockout qualifying rounds who didn’t race their way in Thursday night or qualify on the front row.
Starting positions 37-42 will go to the highest six cars from 2014 owner points who didn’t make it in via the Duels or knockout qualifying.
The 43rd and final position on Sunday’s grid is reserved for the most recent Sprint Cup Series champion, but only if he should need it.
In sum, the safest way make the 500 is to perform well on Thursday night — but there are other options to fall back on, in some drivers’ cases. How one approaches his or Duel really comes down to a risk versus reward scenario.
A strong finish on Thursday night means a terrific starting spot on Sunday. But a really bad finish — which could result from being overly aggressive in pursuit of a really good finish — could mean not even being part of NASCAR’s most prestigious race.
"We’re gonna go at it and get the best spot we can," said Greg Biffle, who is slated to roll off sixth for the second Duel. "The main thing is you want to take care of this 500 car because it’s our best piece, so we’re gonna try to protect it and get the best finish we can."
Even though Earnhardt is in a similar position to Biffle — likely in Sunday’s Daytona 500 but bereft that guarantee — he plans to take a different approach.
"I think you get yourself in trouble mentally when you’re out there not making the right choices to try to be competitive and move toward the front," said Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 champion seeking to become just the fourth back-to-back winner of the sport’s marquee event. "I think if you want to do well in the race and not find yourself in trouble, you do what your instincts tell you: to try to win. If you’re worried about tearing your car up, it’s like the law of attraction. You end up tearing your car up somehow. Trying to stay out of trouble, you find yourself in trouble most of the time."
Then there are those like Edwards, who are locked in the race and have absolutely nothing to lose by pushing the limits on Thursday night.
"We can be more aggressive and just hope that we get a good starting spot," the first-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. "We want to start up front, lead as many laps as we can and win the Daytona 500."