By JEFF WOLFE
The Gatorade Duels at Daytona can bring about a unique feeling in sports.
The two 150-mile qualifying races for Sunday’s Daytona 500 produces winners, who well, while happy, don’t quite feel like they’ve won anything. On the other hand, it can make drivers who finish back in the pack feel like they’ve taken the checkered flag.
Tony Stewart in Duel No. 1 and Matt Kenseth in Duel No. 2 took home the checkered flags, but it was Michael McDowell, Robby Gordon, Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek who walked away with that winning feeling.
Those four drivers had to race their way into Sunday’s 500 as they were the top two finishers in each race who could not make the 500 off of last Sunday’s qualifying speeds. McDowell was sixth and Robby Gordon ninth in the first race while Blaney was 11th and Nemechek 17th in the second race.
But for those four guys, it certainly felt like first.
“You talk about stress in your life, oh my gosh,” Nemechek said. “It’s just incredible. When we pitted, we had to pit at least one lap or two laps early because the fuel pressure was down. I didn’t know if I was going to be out of gas.”
Nemechek had enough gas to make it and hooked up with teammate Bill Elliott, who was on pit road at the same time. While Elliott was one lap down to the leaders, he helped Nemechek stay on the lead lap in the 60-lap race. And that was a big reason why the driver known as “front row Joe” for his ability to qualify over the years, will be more than happy to start 34th Sunday.
“What a relief,” Nemechek said. “There’s been a lot of Tums taken this week. People have no clue how hard it is (to make the Daytona 500). We are working with limited funds and we do a lot. My mom is pulling for me and my wife and kids are here. It’s a big day to make the Daytona 500.”
It looked like Gordon’s day was going to end early. On the first few laps of Duel No. 1, there was smoke coming from his car, but it turned out to be a tire rub and not an engine issue. In recent days Gordon has said his team is up for sale, but that he will still try to compete when possible. He was a worthy competitor after the tire rub was fixed, but like many Thursday, he was dealing with dangerously high temperatures in his engine.
“The motor has been running hot the whole time,” said Gordon, who will start 17th Sunday. “We couldn’t even run in the pack for more than 10 or 15 laps. I’m happy to make the Daytona 500. All of my guys bust their butts week in and week out to get here.”
Blaney didn’t appear to have any major motor issues to worry about. So, his big worry was just to avoid trouble and make the race because he knew his car was good enough.
“It’s big for anybody,” said Blaney, who will start 24th Sunday. “I don’t want to come down here with a car this nice and equipment this nice and miss the race. We had to run smart today and not take any chances and be little cautious on the pit stop. But it’s a flawless race car that could run near the front.”
McDowell’s car certainly wasn’t flawless last Sunday, but with some help from friend and defending Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, McDowell will start 11th this Sunday. And he certainly wasn’t ashamed to give credit for at least one reason why.
“First and foremost I want to thank Jesus Christ, my Lord and savior,” McDowell said. “We didn’t have the speed Sunday to get in. It’s cool to see when you work together what you can accomplish for the work and glory of God.”
Stewart has experienced plenty of glory at Daytona, visiting Victory Lane there 17 times. However, none of those times have come after the Daytona 500. Stewart will make his 14th Daytona 500 start from the third spot. He took the lead with a big push from Kevin Harvick with two laps to go, then was declared the winner on the last lap when an accident sent Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick hard into the infield wall. Patrick escaped unscathed, but the car was destroyed in the head-on collision with the wall.
“We don’t ever want to see us lose a car,” Stewart said. “We took care of business today. We had an awesome car with Kevin Harvick there. We couldn’t have done it without Kevin.’’
Patrick, racing in her first Sprint Cup competition, could have done without hitting the wall. She had run a clean race and was a victim of a crash where it appeared Jamie McMurray came down from the top and was about to hit Aric Almirola, who in trying to avoid the crash hit Patrick in the side and sent her across the infield pavement.
“It happened really quick,” said Patrick, who will start 29th Sunday. “Everyone was on each other’s door really close. It felt pretty big. I don’t know what it looked like.”
But Patrick did feel good about how she raced.
“I felt comfortable, it was just a matter of getting in the right line with the right people,” she said. “It was just kind of hard to get past the mid-pack range. I’m just bummed out.”
Kenseth got in the right line with the right driver on the final lap to win the second Duel and give owner Jack Roush his first 150 Duel victory. With Roush teammate Greg Biffle leading the pack, Kenseth got a big push from Jimmie Johnson up high. Biffle tried to move up to make a block, but Kenseth and Johnson had enough momentum to dive down low and send Kenseth to lead for the final lap.
“I was back a little bit and kind of waiting for Jimmie,” Kenseth said. “ Jimmie worked really good with me today. He gave us a push to get to the front early.”
Then Johnson gave Kenseth the winning push at the end.
“I was going to try and make a plan with him and he got out of line one time,” Kenseth said. “I got up there to try and help him. I’m not sure how I got in front of him, but he gave me the push to win.
This car was really fast. I got out front early and I could tell it had a lot of speed. I made a few wrong moves and shuffled to the back, but was able to get it up to the front.”
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