Fifty-six cars started Thursday’s pair of 150-mile qualifying races for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup season-opening Daytona 500. The crowd at Daytona this week is down substantially this year and many cars and teams are without major sponsors, but to the uneducated observer NASCAR still looks like a pretty healthy animal. Reality will strike at the California Speedway next week at the second of thirty-six races where ticket sales are shockingly weak and fewer cars will attempt to qualify, but at Daytona this week you could squint a little and believe the old days are still with us.
Thursday’s first qualifying race saw four-time champion Jeff Gordon score his first win in sixteen months. Gordon ran among the first three all the way and was able to leap to the front on the final restart and out-duel Tony Stewart, defending champion Jimmie Johnson and highly-touted rookie Joey Logano. Kyle Busch looked equally strong in the second sprint race defeating Mark Martin (below), Brian Vickers and Juan-Pablo Montoya.
Race favourites? It’s hard to say, but Gordon, Busch and Martin looked particularly strong and if the race is clean, these three will be major contenders. As we all know however, anything can and has happened in Daytona’s infamous horsepower-choked ‘restrictor plate’ races. Tortuous, multi-car accidents are a fact of life in this environment and eleventh-hour yellows and gambles on pitstop strategies often mix up the field for the final dash to the chequered flag. The fastest car rarely seems to win at Daytona. “This race really is all about luck,” Montoya remarked yesterday morning. “It’s just a big crapshoot.”
Still, the cars and drivers to beat on Sunday include all four Hendrick Chevrolets driven by Gordon, current champion Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who was seventh in Thursday’s second 150) and Martin. The latter, now 50 years old, has replaced Casey Mears in Hendrick’s fourth car and will start the 500 from the outside of the front row. The Hendrick Chevrolets are always quick at Daytona and this year all four cars look very strong.
On the pole will be Martin Truex’s Ganassi/Earnhardt Racing Chevrolet. Truex led half of Thursday’s first qualifying race only to spin and fall to 21st, but Truex is guaranteed the pole from last Sunday’s qualifying runs which also guaranteed the outside of the front row to the veteran Martin. Other top contenders include Truex’s new team-mate Montoya and Ganassi/Earnhardt’s third Chevy driven by Aric Almirola who finished in fifth place in Thursday’s first qualifying race.
Also looking good on Thursday were Tony Stewart and last year’s Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman. Two-time NASCAR champion Stewart has left Joe Gibbs Racing after ten years to start his own team with his buddy Newman joining him in the new venture after eight years with Roger Penske’s NASCAR team. Stewart and Newman are racing Chevrolet cars with engines built by Hendrick and the new team has hit the ground at speed, running right on the pace at Daytona. Stewart will start from the third row while Newman will start at the back after he was knocked out of his qualifying race in an accident with David Reutimann.
Most likely to beat the many quick Chevrolets is Kyle Busch, winner of Thursday’s second sprint race aboard one of Joe Gibbs’s trio of Toyotas. Busch is the guy most NASCAR fans love to hate, but he’s also shown he’s one of the fastest stock car drivers and looks entirely capable of winning on Sunday. Team-mates Denny Hamlin who finished fifth in the second 150 and rookie Joey Logano who impressed everyone with a great drive to fourth place in the first 150 should also feature among the leaders on Sunday.
For the rest of the field, it’s all about staying out of trouble, avoiding accidents and hoping the big crapshoot comes your way.