Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth head into the Daytona 500 on a roll, winning their respective Gatorade Duel qualifying races Thursday.
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Stewart, the defending Sprint Cup Series champion, was setting up for a last-lap duel for the win in the first race when a hard wreck by Danica Patrick brought out the caution flag and froze the field until the checkered flag.
This is Stewart’s 17th career win at Daytona International Speedway — second most all time behind Dale Earnhardt (34). The Daytona 500 is the only major stock car race not on Stewart’s winning resume.
"The fact that we’ve won 17 times here and not won on the right day is proof it’s good momentum," Stewart said. "But it’s no guarantee obviously."
Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion and 2009 Daytona 500 winner, made a bold move to take the lead on the final lap and held off a huge charge by his rivals to win the second Gatorade Duel. As a result, Roush Fenway Racing will have three cars at the front of the Daytona 500, with Kenseth joining Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
“We just had a big run there," Kenseth said. "Jimmie Johnson gave me a huge push there, and that really worked nice for me the whole race there. Without that push it would have never gotten done."
The win for the No. 17 Best Buy Ford was team owner Jack Roush’s first in the Duel races in his organization’s 25 years of Cup competition.
But perhaps the biggest winners Thursday were Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon in the first race, Joe Nemechek and Dave Blaney in the second Duel.
All four, who were “Go or Go Home” drivers not locked into the field when they came to Daytona a few days ago, raced their way into the field for the Daytona 500. They will join Trevor Bayne, David Stremme and Tony Raines — who are in the field based on posting the top qualifying times among drivers not locked in on owners points — and Terry Labonte, who will use a past champions provisional.
After multiple wrecks marred the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race Saturday night, the two 60-lap Duel races were relatively calm. The first race featured just three cautions — only two of the multicar variety — and the second had none.
The biggest wreck of the day happened on the last lap of the first Duel, when a chain reaction triggered by Jamie McMurray hitting Aric Almirola led to Danica Patrick spinning out of control and running hard into the inside retaining wall.
“It felt pretty big,” said Patrick, who will make her Sprint Cup Series debut Sunday. “I just got hit. We were just running on the bottom lane, and I’m betting it was a chain reaction.”
By winning their races, Stewart and Kenseth will start on the second row in third and fourth place, respectively, in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Edwards and Biffle finished 1-2 in single-car qualifying Sunday and will start on the front row.
The drivers who failed to race their way into the Daytona 500 include Robert Richardson, Mike Wallace, Kenny Wallace, JJ Yeley, former Cup champion Bill Elliott and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip. For Waltrip, it puts an end to a 25-year streak of running in the Great American Race.
"I feel like I let everybody down," Waltrip said. "I raced my way to the front and then I let them down. It’s just really hard. I don’t know what to say — it’s just sad. Thankful to my team and Aaron’s for giving me the opportunity and hate that I let everybody down."
The two qualifying races could not have been more different, and both were far calmer than Saturday night’s exhibition Daytona 500. That race was the first display of new rules NASCAR implemented to break up the two-car tandem racing that fans vehemently opposed.
But the return of pack racing led to three multi-car accidents and a sling-shot pass at the end of the race that gave Kyle Busch the win over Stewart.
The first race on Thursday had one early five-car accident that began when McDowell ran into David Gilliland, who shot directly into Juan Pablo Montoya and Paul Menard.
Menard then questioned the style of racing NASCAR has created.
”It’s a mess out there,” said Menard, who was also wrecked in the Shootout. ”NASCAR is trying to dictate physics. Physics says two cars are going to push and they’re trying to make rule changes to keep us from doing it, so it’s kind of hybrid pack racing and tandem racing. It’s causing a pretty unsafe situation.”
On the last lap of the race, with Stewart trying to hold off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a race to the checkered flag, Patrick was wrecked as the pack raced down the backstretch.
Patrick was hit by Aric Almirola as they raced along the backstretch. The contact sent her car sliding across the track and into an inside retaining wall. Her Chevrolet lifted off its wheels as it hit the SAFER barrier, which noticeably softened the blow.
”It happened really quick,” she said. ”We were just looking to finish, to be honest, and unfortunately that wasn’t the case. It felt pretty big. I don’t know what it looked like.”
Stewart, who owns Patrick’s car, said he tried to watch her race from his rearview mirror.
”I got to see a replay of it, but I didn’t see how it started,” he said. ”The little bit I could see, I thought she did a good job. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind she would do that. It’s hard for her now because she’s trying to gain the confidence of the guys around her that she’s solid and is going to make good decisions.
”She’s trying to gain the other drivers’ confidence.”
The second race was caution-free and had very little action until the end, when Kenseth passed Biffle for the win. It made it unclear what the Daytona 500 will look like, but Stewart, who is 0 for 13 in this race, said he’s not been holding back during SpeedWeeks and will race hard on Sunday.
”We showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed,” he said. ”I want those guys to see that we’ve got strength. I think it’s an advantage to do that at this point of the game, showing that guys around you are going to hopefully want to be around you, and know that you’ve got a car that can stay up there, so they want to stay with you.”
Stewart, who hasn’t missed a beat since closing out last season’s title run, picked up his first victory with new crew chief Steve Addington, who was hired to replace Darian Grubb after Stewart’s championship run.
”We took care of business today,” Stewart said.
Coverage of Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins at noon ET on FOX, with the green flag scheduled to wave shortly after 1:29 p.m. ET.