Daytona 500: Qualifying preview

Daytona 500 Qualifying: Unique and Unforgiving DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 7, 2007) -- Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is definitely unique. This year, for an impressive list of big-name drivers, it also will be undoubtedly unforgiving. Daytona...

Daytona 500 Qualifying: Unique and Unforgiving

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 7, 2007) -- Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is definitely unique.

This year, for an impressive list of big-name drivers, it also will be undoubtedly unforgiving.

Daytona 500 qualifying has three elements: Sunday's Budweiser Pole Day and next Thursday's two 150-mile Gatorade Duel at Daytona qualifying races -- plus the factoring in of the final 2006 car owner point standings' top 35.

Here's what we know:

* On Budweiser Pole Day, the top two qualifiers are "locked in" for the front row of the Daytona 500, set for Sunday, February 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

* Those top 35 teams from the final 2006 owner points also are assured spots in the Daytona 500, leaving what we'll call a group of "non-35s" on the outside looking in, forced to literally race their way into the 500. And what a group that is, as it includes five former Daytona 500 champions: Sterling Marlin, Michael Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Ward Burton and Derrike Cope.

* From each Gatorade Duel race, the top two "non-35" finishers will earn starting spots.

* To complete the field, positions 40-43 will be filled by the four fastest non-35 drivers from Budweiser Pole Day who didn't qualify via their Gatorade Duel finishes. Or maybe ... it'll be the three fastest; if a past series champion has failed to qualify via pole day or the duel races, he'll get the 43rd and final spot via the Past Champion Provisional.

This is a qualifying format that can seem a bit complex. But this year, there is a harsh reality that cuts through the complexity and keeps it simple via this bottom line: Starting spots for the Daytona 500 are going to be harder than ever to come by.

For those increasingly anxious non-35 drivers, the challenge is doubly daunting.

* They'll want to be fast on Budweiser Pole Day, which sets the starting order for the Gatorade Duel events. No way will they want to start deep in a restrictor-plate field, then try to get to the front in only 60 laps.

* Thing is, once the Gatorade Duel races begin, the pressure will be on to go flat-out no matter where you started.

Obviously, some very big names are likely to be on the sidelines for the 49th Annual Daytona 500.

Taking a closer look at this year's high-profile "non-35" group, you find a collective total of 75 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup victories and eight Daytona 500 championships.

Aside from the former 500 champions, here's a rundown of some others who must race their way into the sport's biggest event.

* Three series veterans with new teams in 2007 -- Brian Vickers (Red Bull Racing), Joe Nemechek (Ginn Racing), and Jeremy Mayfield (Bill Davis Racing), all who have won NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races.

* A talented group of rookies vying for their first Daytona 500 experience -- Paul Menard, David Reutimann and AJ Allmendinger.

* Finally, 72-year-old driver James Hylton, the 1966 rookie of the year who boasts nearly 30 years of NASCAR racing experience, will try to qualify for his 17th Daytona 500. A Cinderella task, but not unprecedented. In 2006, Kirk Shelmerdine filled that role with his own, small team, earning the 42nd starting spot and finishing 20th in the Daytona 500. His winnings for that race (a career-high $272,008) enabled him to continue funding his team.

-credit: nascar

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Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Ward Burton , Bill Elliott , Jeremy Mayfield , Michael Waltrip , Joe Nemechek , Sterling Marlin , Kirk Shelmerdine , David Reutimann , James Hylton , Brian Vickers , Paul Menard