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We learned a lot in NASCAR’s Gatorade Duels Thursday. Unfortunately, “learning” for the drivers up front leads to a roll of the dice on quality competition. The first Duel was a clear win for the craps table; as Kevin Harvick said, hard to be unhappy with a three-wide finish, right? But the second slipped considerably as top-quality drivers seemed to rest on their laurels (i.e. secure starting spots in the field). Add in an ugly last-lap wreck — making Sunday the Backup Car 500 — and the results for the sport were a bit of a mixed bag up front.
Parker Kligerman was just one of multiple underfunded underdogs who drove their way into the Daytona 500 Thursday night.
But here’s the thing: these Duels aren’t truly about who’s gunning for first place. Whether you start fourth or 14th, in the modern version of this race you could be leading within the first few laps. Instead, the stories lie within who’s finishing sixth, eighth, 11th… even 15th. It’s the one time all year, especially with rules that keep the lapped cars out back, where the sport’s underdogs truly have their day.
Take Josh Wise, whose Phil Parsons No. 98 car is unsponsored and may still start-and-park later this season, as it has for well over 80 percent of the races it’s ever entered. Daytona is perhaps the only shot to showcase the team’s potential to prospective sponsors. And with a sixth-place finish, Wise has one shot to show that, at least at these big plate tracks, the Davids of the world have every bit of ability to compete against Goliath.
“You put a lot of pressure on yourself,” he said after finishing sixth, making just the second Daytona 500 of his career. “Sleep has been light this week. But my car was pretty good. Tonight was just about execution and not making mistakes.”
And then reaping the reward: money — which in some cases can mean the difference between buying tires or even going to the racetrack some weekends. Landon Cassill, whose carsforsale.com No. 40 car finished ninth in the second Duel, said the cash from the Daytona 500 “would put his team through the first six or seven” races of the season on its own. And for good reason: last place in the Duel pays $24,738, compared to the over quarter-million dollars 43rd gets you in the Great American Race.
No wonder so many underdog drivers left here smiling, each one armed with their own unique story. For Cassill, it was recovering from a bike accident last week during which a motorist ran a stop sign, slammed into him, and left the driver faceplanted on the ground. One week later, he’s sitting pretty. That woman who ran him over? She’s, um, not in the 500.
For rookie Alex Bowman, whose Dr. Pepper/BK Racing car was in the last transfer spot across the line in his Duel (15th), he didn’t even have a ride two months ago. It was seemingly a lucky break when his hardscrabble Cup operation chose to clean house, choosing younger talent over veterans David Reutimann and Travis Kvapil, who rode 2013 to disappointing results. Thursday, we found out why it wasn’t all luck.
“The biggest piece our spotter gave me those last couple laps was ‘we need a bunch more [positions] then where we’re at,’” Bowman said. “That was a kick in the butt to get going, I guess.”
And so, just like that, the youngster got it done. It was an unexpected surprise within a sport where eight drivers are competing for Rookie of the Year that seven first-years somehow slid into the race.
But those newbies aren’t alone as the underdogs. There were the Labonte brothers, Terry and Bobby, two gray-haired former Cup champions on the tail end of their careers. Like all athletes hanging on, they’re reduced to bench player roles, part-time rides with underfunded operations who hope the old magic comes just one more time. For Terry, that’ll be all she wrote; 2014 is to be his last 500. For brother Bobby, pushed out of full-time Cup competition this year, the end won’t be far behind.
After a valiant effort, Terry was staring a DNQ in the face heading straight into the last lap of his Duel. Well out of qualifying position — just like his brother — he’d lose the battle of the past champion’s provisional between them. But seconds later, an empty gas tank (courtesy of Jimmie Johnson) flipped Clint Bowyer over, set Martin Truex, Jr.’s car on fire, and kept enough cars from finishing that both men made the race through the finishing order. Now — just like that — they’ll race together for the final time in the sport’s biggest race, hoping that pairing up will produce one unlikely miracle for both of them.
“Thank goodness we made the race,” Terry said. “We were done.”
Instead, he’s still alive and kicking, much like the Swan Racing outfit, whose drivers fit the younger end of NASCAR’s spectrum. Two young rookies, Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman, faced longshot bids to make the race. Picking up last-minute sponsors, their team was securing last-minute parts and pieces after an ugly Wednesday wreck in practice left Kligerman sliding upside down on his roof.
“We had to redo everything,” he said. “You have the weight of an organization on your shoulders to get these two cars in the race. It’s a growing organization that wants to be a Chase contender in years to come.”
Whitt did his part, running 12th in Duel 1, but a fuel issue left Kligerman outside the top 15. That meant the second Duel was a nail-biting affair, every bit as nerve-racking as the drivers going 200 mph just a short distance outside the motorhome.
“It’s like a presidential election,” Kligerman explained while waiting out his fate (the driver ultimately earned a provisional spot and rolls off 41st on the grid Sunday). “You’re at the mercy of someone else’s information, at the mercy of someone else’s decisions and actions. It’s a tough place to be, but I hope to never be in that position again.”
Yet Thursday night, in each case these drivers couldn’t have been in a better spot. Three weeks from now, they’ll all be fighting for 30th, driving vastly underfunded equipment while building for the future — and few fans will care. Such is the cold reality in modern-day NASCAR, where there’s rich, poor, and the hope-to-be-rich-someday. But on this night, Daytona shined down on these men and gave them the public spotlight for something too many top drivers take for granted: a place in the sport’s biggest race.
Congrats to them. Thursday night, more than ever, these underdogs truly did have their day.