With a steady push from Regan Smith, Kurt Busch cruised to his second win of Daytona Speedweeks to take the first of the 150-mile Gatorade Duel qualifying races. Thanks to Dale Earnhardt Jr. being forced to the rear of the field after wrecking his primary car on Wednesday (Feb. 16), Busch will now move to the front row and start Sunday’s Daytona 500 from the pole position.
“It’s amazing what partnerships can do on the racetrack,” Busch said in victory lane. “When two guys can think the same thing without saying a word, good things are going to happen for those two guys.”
Waiting until the last moment to attempt a move, Smith settled for second place and will take the green flag for Sunday’s race from the third spot.
“You can have a good pushing car, but if you don’t have anybody willing to work with you it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “Kurt and I worked good all day and we had good cars hooked up together. He worked with me down here last week and taught me the switch and everything like that. I hope we can find each other and do the same thing on Sunday. We work good together.”
Throughout the 62-lap event (extended two circuits for a green-white-checkered finish), three groups of two cars worked together to battle for the win – Busch and Smith, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, and Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Looking like the race would be decided among these three alone, a blown motor on the No. 66 of Michael McDowell ended his chances at making the race and bunched the field up for the final restart.
Not only did the caution bring the field back together, it also broke apart drafting partners that had been working together for the majority of the event. As the field awaited the restart, spotters were hard at work making deals to find their drafting partners as soon as possible.
Quickly, partners that had worked together for the majority of the race found one another and set up for the final two lap dash to the checkers. While Kahne and Montoya were able to get out front initially on the restart, the Busch-Smith tandem powered past with Harvick being pushed by Kenseth quickly approaching.
As the field came off the fourth corner for the final time, Smith stayed stuck on Busch’s bumper until the tri-oval, much too late to make a move.
“There’s so many thought going through your mind,” Busch admitted. “What are the two front-row guys going to do? Who’s been teamed up all day? Who’s been there trying to get to their buddy? There are so many different scenarios, it’s almost like a roulette table spinning and you wait to see if the marble lands on your number. And today was our day.”
While Busch celebrated the win, Bill Elliott and JJ Yeley were rejoicing in their accomplishment of racing their way into Sunday’s race. Elliott’s qualifying speed was enough to guarantee him a starting spot, but Yeley was a lap down prior to the caution and appeared to be headed home early. Thanks to the lucky dog, Yeley got his lap back and was able to move past Kevin Conway and teammate Joe Nemechek on the restart to grab the final transfer spot.
“The caution was a huge benefit,” Yeley said. “I learned from the start of the race that just you and your usual drafting was a lot faster than trying to get partnered up with someone. It took almost a lap and a half, especially from caution speed, to get your speed to where you were going to get going. If it would have been more than two laps on the restart, both those guys could have blown back by me. I wouldn’t have had a shot. I was trying to keep them separated for as long as we could.
“Nemechek and I beat up on each other down the back straightaway. That was enough to get me out in front and enough cushion that they couldn’t catch me before the checkered.”
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