Daytona 500: Series round one preview

Front And Center Top Two Qualifiers Martin, Earnhardt Will Lead Respective Gatorade Duel Fields DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Big-name drivers have the front row locked down for NASCAR's biggest race. But first, they have a little warm-up on their ...

Front And Center
Top Two Qualifiers Martin, Earnhardt Will Lead Respective Gatorade Duel Fields

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Big-name drivers have the front row locked down for NASCAR's biggest race. But first, they have a little warm-up on their hands.

Mark Martin (No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/ National Guard Chevrolet) were the two fastest drivers this past Saturday on qualifying day for the Daytona 500, earning them guaranteed front-row status for the start of Sunday's event. They also get the respective pole positions for Thursday's two 150-mile qualifying races called collectively the Gatorade Duel at Daytona.

"The 5 and the 88 (on the front row) ... it's a really special accomplishment," said Martin.

This pole-day pairing sprouted a string of storylines, starting with the fact that the two are teammates at Hendrick Motorsports.

There's the age thing. Martin is on the Daytona 500 pole for the first time in his long career and at 51 years old, is the oldest Daytona 500 pole winner in history. Earnhardt is a kid by comparison, only 35.

How about the career path angle? Martin's seems on the upswing, since last year was perhaps his best yet en route to a second-place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. Earnhardt, meanwhile, struggled to his worst points finish to date in 2009, 25th.

The start of 2010, though, offers a clean slate, which Earnhardt especially welcomes. Last season, his second with Hendrick Motorsports, personified disappointment.

"We've been waiting for what seems like a lifetime through the off-season to get to the racetrack to do something good for (our sponsors)," Earnhardt said. "This is just a small step in the right direction for the 88.

'Q School' -- Daytona 500 Qualifying 101

Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is, if nothing else, unique. It has a variety of components involving two days, two races and a previous season's final points.

Here's the deal.

• Coming into the Daytona 500, one thing is known. Thirty-five teams, based on the final 2009 car owners standings, have guaranteed berths in the Daytona 500.

• Coming out of "pole day" this past Saturday, the top-two qualifiers, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., were "locked in" on the front row.

• Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona, consisting of two 150-mile races, advance the top-two finishers from each race who are not in the top 35 category. Call them the "non-35s." That will bring the field total to 39.

• The rest of the field will be based on qualifying speeds from pole day by the non-35s. That amounts to the four fastest non-35s -- or three, if the past champion provisional gets used by Bobby Labonte (No. 71 Chevrolet). Which means that Bill Elliott (No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford), Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota) and Joe Nemechek (No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports Toyota) have all secured berths because of their qualifying speeds. (Note: If any of those three or Labonte finish as one of the top-two non-35s in a Duel race, it will open up other spots for non-35s based on qualifying speeds.)

Which brings us to -- ta-da -- the field of 43.

Some further notes about the Gatorade Duel races:

They establish the starting order for the 500. The front-row qualifiers are locked in based on pole day. Based on their finish in the first Duel race, top-35 drivers plus the two highest non-35s will be lined up in oddnumber starting positions for the 500. Based on their finish in the second Duel, the top-35 drivers plus the two highest finishing non-35s will get even-number starting positions.

Got it? Good. There'll be a quiz on Thursday.

Dueling Doubleheader: Thursday's Races Start With 15 Drivers On Outside Looking In

Here's the long and short of it, regarding Thursday's "Gatorade Duel At Daytona," the two 150-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500:

There are 19 drivers still trying to get into the big show.

Only four spots remain up for grabs.

Thirty-five drivers already are guaranteed spots in the 500, based on 2009 final car owner points. This past Saturday, qualifying days assured spots to four "non-35s." That leaves four spots; the top two non-35 finishers from each Duel race will make the 500.

Following is a rundown of the 15 drivers chasing those elusive berths. It's an interesting mix that includes two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip, former Coca-Cola 600 champion Casey Mears and the former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Mike Bliss.

• Aric Almirola (No. 09 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet): Almirola, in a ride that has a history of success in restrictor-plate racing, will start the second Duel race 22nd. He qualified 46th at 187.278 mph.

• Norm Benning (No. 57 Norm Benning Racing Chevrolet): Benning qualified 54th, with a speed of 180.607. For the second-straight year he was the slowest qualifier. He'll start at the back of the second Duel, in 27th.

• Dave Blaney (No. 66 PRISM Motorsports Toyota): Blaney, the former Sprint Car champion who has struggled to establish himself in NASCAR, will start the second Duel event in 24th. He was the 49th-fastest qualifier, at 186.254.

• Mike Bliss (No. 36 Wave Energy Drink Chevrolet): Bliss, the 2002 champion of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, will start the second Duel race 15th. He qualified 29th, at 189.052.

• Terry Cook (No. 46 Whitney Motorsports Dodge): This Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate will start the first Duel race 25th. He qualified 47th out of 54 cars, at 187.056.

• Derrike Cope (No. 75 Asset Protect/ Dodge): The popular, 1990 Daytona 500 champion starts the second Duel race in 25th. He qualified 51st at 185.041.

• Jeff Fuller (No. 97 NEMCO Motorsports Toyota): Fuller starts the first Duel event 22nd. He qualified 43rd, at 187.363.

• David Gilliland (No. 49 Warner Music/ Larry the Cable Guy Toyota): Gilliland, trying to rebuild his stock in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, will start the second Duel race in 21st. Gilliland qualified 41st., at 187.766.

• Michael McDowell (No. 55 PRISM Motorsports Toyota): McDowell wants to be remembered for far more than walking away from that spectacular accident at Texas in 2008. He starts the first Duel race in 26th after qualifying 50th, at 185.924.

• Casey Mears (No. 90 Keyed-Up Motorsports Chevrolet): Mears is also battling to stay in NASCAR's top series, with a new team. He'll start the second Duel event in 20th position; he qualified 39th-fastest, at 188.300. • Max Papis (No. 13 GEICO Toyota): Papis, the former open-wheel star who has the personality to succeed in NASCAR, still is looking for some results. He'll start the first Duel event in 20th. He qualified 40th, at 188.198.

• Kirk Shelmerdine (No. 27 Kirk Shelmerdine Racing Toyota): He's not sponsored, and he was the former crew chief on four of Dale Earnhardt's championship-winning teams. That all adds up to making Shelmerdine a huge sentimental favorite to make the Daytona 500 field, both with fans and within the NASCAR industry. He'll start the first Duel last, in 27th. He qualified second-from last, 52nd, at 184.407.

• Reed Sorenson (No. 32 Dollar Genera. Toyota): Yet another driver who is with a new team, fighting to get into the Daytona 500. Sorenson will start the first Duel in 19th place. He qualified 38th, at 188.391.

• Mike Wallace (No. 92 K Automotive Dodge): Wallace won a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona in the summer of 2004. He finished an impressive fourth in the 2007 Daytona 500. All that experience will be needed Thursday. Wallace will start the second Duel event 26th. He qualified next-to-last, 53rd, at 182.678.

• Michael Waltrip (No. 51 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota): Waltrip won the Daytona 500 in 2001 and 2003, before he owned his own team. Committed only to a part-time schedule for this year, Waltrip will start the first Duel race in 10th. He qualified 20th -- fifth-best among the "non-35s" -- with a speed of 189.454. Waltrip seems like the best bet among this "outside looking in" group to race his way into the Daytona 500.

Stewart Has The Stats At Daytona, Despite Lack A 500 Victory

It's not that Tony Stewart (No. 14 Old Spice/ Office Depot Chevrolet) can't win the big one.

Clearly he can.

He has won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship twice. He's won the Brickyard 400 twice. Last season, he nabbed a NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race victory.

But for whatever reason, a Daytona 500 triumph has eluded Stewart. But it's not that Daytona gives him fits. Far from it. Stewart has three wins in the annual July race, including last season, his first as a driver-owner.

And statistically, Stewart ranks at the very top.

Since the inception of Loop Data, Stewart has a series-high Driver Rating of 108.2, an Average Running Position of 11.6, 51 Fastest Laps Run, a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 72.6% and a series-best Pass Differential (passes minus times passed) of plus-190.

Only once in the last 10 races has Stewart scored a Driver Rating lower than 85.8.

In six of the last 10 races, Stewart has had a Driver Rating over 100.0.

Stewart owns the three highest Driver Ratings recorded at Daytona since the stat's inception in 2005. Additionally, three of his single-race Average Running Positions also rank 1-2-3.

In other words, Stewart's wait for a Daytona 500 victory might end soon. Among the favorites to again thwart the two-time series champion is a driver who might also be looking for a little payback.

Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's Toyota), who is also looking for his first Daytona 500 victory, was on the short end of a last lap battle with Stewart in last year's July Daytona race. Busch and Stewart banged toward the finish line. Stewart ended up in Victory Lane. Busch ended up in the wall.

Busch has scored seven consecutive Driver Ratings over 100.0 at Daytona. In his 10 Daytona races, Busch has a Driver Rating of 101.0, an Average Running Position of 10.9, 33 Fastest Laps Run, a Laps In the Top 15 percentage of 77.4 and 235 Laps Led.

Busch's Laps in the Top 15 percentage ranks tops among drivers at Daytona.

Shootout Victory Perfect Tonic For Harvick -- And RCR Organization

Richard Childress Racing isn't all the way back, but the organization took a big step this past Saturday night when Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell Pennzoil Chevrolet) won the Budweiser Shootout for the second-straight year.

RCR's woes were well-documented last season when none of the organization's teams qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Harvick's Shootout victory accounted for the sole visit to Victory Lane.

Harvick was a surprise winner last week and not only because of RCR's recent struggles. He has been extremely ill recently with flu-like symptoms and missed the practice sessions for the event.

Racing was a remedy, however, as Harvick reminded fans of the many past glories of RCR at Daytona International Speedway, while also creating a buzz about Sunday's Daytona 500, a race Harvick won three years ago.

"You've just got to stay even keel at Daytona," Harvick said during the post-Shootout press conference. The big picture is on Sunday. These guys [Childress and crew chief Gil Martin) have been here enough, they know this place can knock you down as fast as it can pick you up.

"This gives you a little swagger in our step ... everybody on our team knows they can win. We got beat down a little bit in the middle of the season last year.

"This gives everybody the confidence, knowing we've done it (winning) a lot and we can still do it a lot more."

Restrictions Relaxed: Current Openings To Plates Largest Since 1989

NASCAR has mandated that carburetor restrictor plates at this year's Daytona 500 have openings of 63/64-inch -- the largest openings since the one-inch mandate in 1988, the first year the horsepower-reducing plates were used in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Daytona International Speedway.

The plates, with four openings, restrict air flow to the engine and thus slow stock cars down. Larger openings mean better flow, more juice to the engine -- and higher speeds. ...

Fan-Friendly: Voting Begins For Most Popular Driver Award

Voting has begun for the 2010 NASCAR National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) Hamburger Helper Most Popular Driver Award. Once again, the competition will include a 10-week "playoff" at season's end, with the top 10 vote-getters vying for the final prize.

Fans can vote once daily for their favorite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, on

Following the race event at Richmond International Raceway, voting for the full field of 41 drivers will end on Sept. 11 at 11:59 p.m. CT. At that point, the 10 drivers with the most votes will be announced as finalists and the vote count will reset to zero. Fans will then have 10 race weeks to cast their vote once a day to determine the 2010 most popular driver.

Voting will conclude Nov. 22 at 11:59 p.m. CT and the winner will be announced at the NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Luncheon in December.

Last season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned his seventh consecutive Hamburger Helper Most Popular Driver Award, which is administered by the NMPA. Earnhardt and Bill Elliott each have won the award seven consecutive times since the award's inception in 1953.

Up Next: Auto Club 500 @ Auto Club Speedway

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will make its first of two trips to the Los Angeles area next weekend for the Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Last season, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford) took home the checkered flag and became the fifth driver in history to win the first two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the season.

Kenseth (3) is joined by Jimmie Johnson (4) and Jeff Gordon (3) as the only drivers with multiple Auto Club Speedway wins in the track's 19 races. All three of those drivers, by the way, have won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship; two of the three, Johnson and Gordon, are California natives.

The Auto Club 500 will air on FOX on Sunday, Feb. 21. The pre-race show starts at 2 p.m. ET with the race starting at 3 p.m., the new standard start time for West Coast races

Fast Facts

The Race: 52nd Annual Daytona 500
The Place: Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile tri-oval)

The Date: Sunday, Feb. 14
The Time: 1 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 500 miles/200 laps

TV: FOX , Noon ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128.

The Polesitter: Mark Martin

2008 Champion: Matt Kenseth

Wednesday -- Practice, 12- 1:30 p.m. and 2-2:50 p.m.
Thursday -- Gatorade Duel at Daytona races, 2 p.m.
Friday -- Practice, 1:40-2:40 p.m.
Saturday -- Practice, 10:30-11:55 a.m.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Derrike Cope , Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Michael Waltrip , Jeff Fuller , Kevin Harvick , Joe Nemechek , Mike Wallace , Casey Mears , Max Papis , Jimmie Johnson , Terry Cook , Kirk Shelmerdine , Michael McDowell , Scott Speed , Mike Bliss , Norm Benning , David Gilliland , Reed Sorenson , Dave Blaney , Aric Almirola , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , NEMCO Motorsports , Phoenix Racing