Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Daytona Qualifiers Race Recap

The Key Moment

Duel OneRegan Smith knew better than to advance his position after the debacle at Talladega two years ago, handing the win to his drafting partner Kurt Busch.

Duel TwoJeff Burton with wingman Clint Bowyer were the best duo on restarts and a late-race caution fell directly into their hands.

In a Nutshell: Maybe they should hand out twin trophies at Daytona Sunday like they do with gold medals to ice-dancing partners at the Olympics.

Dramatic Moment: There was a lot of intensity but not much drama.

Here’s what worries me about Sunday (Feb. 20). When two drivers running in tandem need to swap positions to keep the rearward driver’s car from overheating they need two plus lanes to make the swap effectively. If two pairs of drivers decide to make the shift at the same time, we’ve seen before that four-wide racing at Daytona (with the added bonus of the third group behind them closing at 20 mph faster than the swappers) doesn’t work too well.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Some people have asked me this week why the uproar over two drivers hooking together to get away from the pack? Isn’t that the sort of strategy that set up all those classic Petty-Pearson battles (like the 1976 Daytona 500) or Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough in the infamous 1979 500? Not quite. Back in those days with the draft (well we used to call it the “slingshot” ), the driver in second place had the advantage running into turn 3 on the final lap.

Remember when the twin qualifying races still mattered? Way back when in 1961, three-time champion Lee Petty, his son, rising star Richard Petty and Johnny Beauchamp, second-place finisher in the first Daytona 500, all missed the race after wrecking in the qualifiers. The elder Petty and Beauchamp both suffered serious injuries when their cars sailed into the parking lot while the King, who also left the ballpark, wasn’t seriously injured in the second qualifier.

But back then you raced to make the 500 and if you wrecked you went home. With only four drivers actually racing to see if they made the 500, Thursday’s “action” was less than compelling. So how do we fix this? Seems to me back in the days of yore the twin qualifiers were points-paying events.

See also
Shakedown Session: Which Cinderella Will Wear Daytona's Glass Slipper Thursday? Does Anybody Care?

Speaking of the days of yore, was Thursday the most bizarre day in the qualifying race history? Not hardly. Back in 1968, the hours leading up to the twin races were plagued by rain. The rain let up and Bill France Sr. ordered the drivers who were to start the first qualifier to their cars to start the race. As the track was still soaked, all the drivers refused the order. Incensed by the insubordination, France jumped in his daily driver Cadillac and announced he was going on track to start the race and the full purse and points (see above) would be awarded.

Keep in mind this Caddy of France’s was lacking such required equipment as a rollbar and was in no way legal to race. France asked the drivers who was with him and only then rookie Dave Marcis agreed to start the race. Fortunately or unfortunately the rain began falling again and the races had to be scrubbed, the only NASCAR races at Daytona ever to be canceled due to rain.

Will Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team have to go to a backup car for Sunday after their late-race wreck? If so, both drivers who qualified on the front row last Sunday will be starting shotgun on the field. Ouch.

What is it the Fords, those of Jack Roush in general, and Matt Kenseth in particular, have found that allows them to push another car so many laps without overheating? Is it the FR9 engine or has Roush found another trick?

Who to watch out for on Sunday? Kenseth and anyone he is pushing, any duo of RCR cars and Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch if they get nose to tail.

Did NASCAR try to orchestrate Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 pole as a reporter on ESPN claimed with “60%” certainty to spice up human interest on the 10th anniversary of Dale Sr.’s tragic death? I doubt it. Why bother? Winning the pole at Daytona means almost nothing other than a good pit stall. A lot of drivers who qualify well will drop to the back of the pack once the green flag drops to try to avoid the big wrecks.

See also
Full Throttle: NASCAR Rumored to Be Fixing the Daytona 500

In all actuality only the last 15 laps or so really matter. The Daytona 500 pole is sort of like the “Miss Congeniality” award at the Miss America pageant. Basically it’s the equivalent of being told, “You don’t sweat much for a fat chick.” So why was Earnhardt even out there on Thursday when he couldn’t advance his starting position?

Betty McCollum, US Congressperson from Minnesota, has called for a bill that would ban the US military from sponsoring racecars. (The Army currently sponsors cars in both the NHRA and NASCAR series.) Oddly enough, military recruiters claim the racing sponsorships are among the most effective recruiting tools they have ever had at their disposal, generating nearly 50,000 qualified leads last year alone to young people interested in serving their country.

Give the military back a million bucks and what are they going to do with it anyway? Buy a couple toilet seats and a hammer. Interestingly, the first US military sponsorships I recall in Cup racing were shortly after the outbreak of the first Gulf War at Daytona. Winston actually picked up the tab to have four unsponsored drivers, including Alan Kulwicki, run the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard colors.

David Hill (no relation to Hank), FOX network head programming honcho said Thursday that most NASCAR races need to be shortened. I tend to agree with him in most instances but not in the case of the World 600 he singled out for a length reduction. The 600-mile length is what makes the World 600 unique. Yeah, Hill would like to see the 600 shortened. And I’d like to see FOX returned to a UHF channel that shows Kung Fu movies with really bad lip syncing for stoners on Saturday afternoons.

Last place in this year’s 500 pays almost a quarter million dollars. Anyone seen the keys to Bill France’s Caddy?

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Earnhardt Jr. wrecked his pole winning entry early in Wednesday’s practice trying to stay off of teammate Jimmie Johnson. Because he was forced to a backup car not only did Earnhardt have to start his qualifying race out back, his finishing position in that race means nothing. He’ll have to start the 500 out back because he qualified on the front row.

See also
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Forced to Backup Car, Will Start Daytona 500 at the Rear

Meanwhile Martin Truex Jr.‘s car, collected in the same wreck that took out the No. 88 car, could advance his starting position for Sunday. No, I don’t get it either. I’m tired of trying to explain NASCAR’s more arcane rules. Stick a tube of model glue up each nostril, inhale deeply and come up with the most ridiculous set of rules you can. NASCAR’s actual Daytona 500 qualifying is more insane than yours.

Trevor Bayne in the Wood Brothers car was off to a fine start to his first Speedweeks until that wreck late in the second race.

Casey Mears will miss the 500 after blowing his second engine in three laps at speed Wednesday and Thursday.

Joey Logano took the hardest hit in the 150s, slamming the inside wall hard enough to get the front wheels of his car off the ground.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Kurt Busch’s Speedweeks could hardly be off to a better start with a win in the Bud Shootout and a win Thursday in his qualifying race.

After all these years Jeff Burton finally won a Cup race at Daytona.

Michael Waltrip knew starting the second race that he was in the 500 because Bill Elliott raced his way into the field in the first event rather than needing to fall back on his qualifying speed.

Brian Keselowski in a five-year-old Dodge prepared by Ray Evernham back in the day raced his way into the Daytona 500 with the help of a little Brotherly Shove.

Worth Noting

  • First race winner Kurt Busch finished fourth in last year’s second qualifying race. Second race winner Burton crashed out of the first event last year and finished 26th in a 27-car field.
  • It’s not like Kurt Busch’s hot streak this week is without precedent. He’s finished second three times in the Daytona 500, most recently pushing then-teammate Ryan Newman to the win. Busch had top-five results in 45% of his points paying Daytona starts.

What’s the Points? No points were awarded Thursday so we saw more pointless racing.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic)

Duel One – Well give it two cans since you need to have a pair to run fast.

Duel Two – We’ll give this one three cans because it offered a better preview of what we’ll likely see Sunday, four abreast two-car deep packs scrambling to the finish.

Next Up: It’s time for the Daytona 500 on Sunday. Or I presume it will still be a 500-mile race. NASCAR has changed about everything else since the racers arrived. My guess is this will be the most unpredictable 500 since 1981 when the “little” cars were introduced.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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