Tori Petry, ESPN Radio
Celebration for Robby Gordon and the #7 team. Heart-breaking disappointment for driver-owner Michael Waltrip. And a frustrating final lap for Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick. This was the mood at the conclusion of the Gatorade Duels at Daytona on Thursday.
The game plan for every team coming in was to make it if you had to, but by all means: don’t break it.
Ten of the 49 drivers running in the twin 150’s were vying for the final four spots in the Daytona 500. The rest of the field was racing for starting position in Sunday’s showdown. One wreck and you could be sent to your back-up car – and as per NASCAR rules, the back of the starting lineup.
The latter was the case for a certain talked-about lady driver named Danica Patrick. Running 3-wide out of turn 2 on the white flag lap, Patrick was clipped by Aric Almirola, wrecking his #43 car and sending Patrick violently skidding off the track and slamming into the barrier. Patrick was fine, but the #10 car was not. She will now be bringing up the rear of the 500 starting lineup in a different lime green GoDaddy.com Chevy. Juan Pablo Montoya, Paul Menard, and David Gilliland will also be sent to the back in their back-ups after getting tangled up on lap 9.
For another driver, a wreck had far greater consequences. Two-time Daytona champion Michael Waltrip missed his chance at competing for a third title when he wrecked coming out of the pits too high into the banking of turn 2. Waltrip made his way back to the pits looking dejected, calling it a “communication” error. “I just screwed up,” said Waltrip. Without him in the race, Sunday will mark the first 500 event since 1972 without the Waltrip name in the mix.
However, Thursday’s races weren’t all gloom and doom. It might have looked that way at the start for Robby Gordon, who had to race in at the Duels or have his 500 hopes dashed. His car was puffing white smoke within the first few laps, forcing him to trail behind the pack. But a skillful pit stop fixed a tire rub problem and got him back on track. The recovery allowed him to take a 5th place finish in Duel 1, and one of the four open slots in the 54th annual Daytona 500.
Also taking one of the final spots was Tommy Baldwin Racing’s Dave Blaney. Although he earned a spot for TBR in the top 35 last season with the #36 car, he still wasn’t locked in for the 500. TBR had claimed the #36 car owner points to make a deal with Stewart-Haas Racing and the #10, locking Patrick in for her inaugural Sprint Cup event. Without that deal, her wreck would have put her out of the race altogether. But thankfully for the media, they still get to talk about her on Sunday, and Dave Blaney still gets compete, racing in with a 4th place finish in Duel 1.
Michael McDowell and Joe Nemechek also raced their way into the 500 at the Duels. But like Waltrip, there will be no more racing this weekend for Robert Richardson Jr., Mike Wallace, JJ Yeley, or veterans Bill Elliott and Kenny Wallace. If it weren’t for a fast qualifying run to lock him in last Sunday, defending Daytona champion Trevor Bayne’s name would be in that group as well after he finished 12th in Duel 1.
Although it was more important to avoid losing on Thursday than to win, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth managed to do both. Stewart was the first place finisher for the first Duel, and Kenseth claimed Victory Lane in the second. The two will start in the second row behind pole winner Carl Edwards and outside pole Greg Biffle on Sunday.
With that, the field for the 500 is now set. How the race will play out still remains unknown. The newly reinstated pack drafting forced drivers to stay cautious in the Duels in order to preserve their primary cars. But on Sunday, things might not be so tidy. Sure, some of the 200 laps will look like the Duels: drive conservatively and just stay in the game. But when it comes down to the end, no driver wants to go out at Daytona in a casual fashion. We saw how messy pack racing could get in last weekend’s Bud Shootout. In the 500, 43 cars will be fighting for the prestigious Daytona title, and they are no doubt willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
Tori Petry is a Telecommunications student at the University of Florida. She covers motorsports for ESPN Radio (Gainesville/Ocala). Check out her blog, "Motorsports Flash" at espngo1.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sportstori