Race Weekend Central

The Inauspicious Hope of the Duels

On Tuesday (Feb. 13), NASCAR Cup Series teams faced the prospect of a lottery-style system delivering the news of the qualifying order for Wednesday. The 42 teams that signed up to race the Daytona 500 will then see their driver rip two laps on the track individually, and the times will then be tallied up to determine – the pole winner and the driver slotted into second. So far, the system makes sense.

Until the Duels on Thursday. When the duels commence, the drivers of all 42 cars will take their pristine, specially-built Daytona masterpiece onto the track to drive in one of two 150-mile races that then set the actual starting lineup for the race on Sunday.

Some of that still makes sense. The times from qualifying set first and second, unless the polesitter or second place driver wrecks in the Duel. Then they’ll be sent to the back because they will be pulling onto the track in a backup for the big race. The other drivers will be trying to set themselves up with the important starting position for a race – where starting position means almost nothing.  Should they wreck in one of the Duels, they, too, will be starting at the back.

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A quick sum-total: qualifying matters for first and second, but might not, but also matters for setting up into which Duel race they get slotted. The Duel then sets the starting positions for the 500 unless it doesn’t because the primary car rests in the back of the hauler in a heap. 

All of the set up actually sets up little. One question to ask is: How many winners of the Duels have won the 500? Not many. Over the past 10 years, no driver has won a Duel and the 500. Go back 20 years, and the records indicate that two drivers accomplished the double of winning a Duel and the 500 – Matt Kenseth (2012) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2004). Adding 10 more years, going back to 1993, adds only two more names — Dale Earnhardt (1998) and Sterling Marlin (1995) — to the list. In all, just eight drivers have accomplished the feat, though Cale Yarborough somehow did it twice (1977, 1984), which is rather amazing when thinking about the statistical accomplishment. 

The other side of this whole equation is the have-nots. The have-nots are the teams that are not backed by a charter and find themselves needing to race into the 500, doing so through the Duels because the time posted during qualifying doesn’t matter but might, depending on where other have-nots finish.

Really, the Duels are about the have-nots more than they are about the other 36 drivers. But even that aspect is a bit of a goofy notion. The duels are essentially two races featuring 21 cars each, where the main story is six cars that do not have charters and are trying to outdo each other for the remaining four spots.  The Duels could be done away with if NASCAR presented a race between the six have-nots racing for the final four spots. Oddly enough, that sounds like decent entertainment.

As it stands now, viewers will be bombarded with two Duels where Clint Bowyer gets overly excited about six cars that have almost no chance of winning the 500. Are these have-nots fun stories? Yes, but only Jimmie Johnson moves the proverbial needle. No offense to JJ Yeley, David Ragan, Kaz Grala, and whoever else is adding to the spectacle of the 500, but they are not bringing the headlines and their ability to have any impact in the 500 other than being a caution is, sadly, mitigated by team finances.

Does getting into the race boost the coffers of a have-not? Absolutely. That’s exactly what these teams are racing for – a piece of the biggest pie on the calendar and the hopes that by becoming part of the field they might secure sponsorship for another few weeks. Is that what the races are for? Charity?

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The charter system really challenged the whole tension of the Duels and racing into the 500. At one point, there was a chance, however scant, that a driver might not make the field. Then came provisionals. Then came the top-40 rule or whatever it was. Finally, the charter system fully locked in 36 drivers at the same time the field got limited to 40. With four spots open, the whole concept became inane because, as with most things in the world, racing has not gotten any cheaper. The six teams vying for are playing fiscal roulette, hoping that the 500 will serve as a big payday to help cover the fact that they are not that good at managing their money or developing the company otherwise.

Racing has never been cheap. As Formula 1 has locked its grid and the NASCAR Cup Series is moving in a similar direction with the charter system, the barriers to racing grow larger when trying to compete at the top levels. In a way, that is how it should be. One must question the value of having non-competitive teams in the field and what value they bring. A feel-good story only matters if it is a story worth telling, otherwise it is just a footnote – not inconsequential but not vital.

If we think about other franchise sports, which is what charters are, then the level of competition is paramount to the success of all involved. The monolith that is the NFL is locked at 32 teams. It would be absurd to think that some upstart team should be able to challenge a team like, say, the Seattle Seahawks and expect the outcome to be positive. From one perspective, the competition has no value for the Seahawks but from another the upstart has so little to gain that the value of the competition becomes less even should the upstart’s effort be shown as ‘respectable’. There is a reason that the NFL stopped having scrimmages against college teams.

The Duels just highlight the need for NASCAR to start doing the same. 

About the author

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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What happens if Jimmie Johnson doesn’t make the race? Maybe he can still make the race in Saudi Arabia. Can’t wait to see him sporting a keffiyeh with “The Club” printed in Arabic.

WJW Motorsports

Good piece Doc – thanks. This would be the first year since around 1981 that I completely missed yesterday – just didn’t even notice it on the radar of my life. Just saying. The Duels – like this whole week are a holdover from a time when most of us simply could not get enough NASCAR at Daytona, and guys all over in little garages dreamed they could build a car to make the race. All fiction now. The sport will exist like the NFL and others – just thinly veiled reality shows with gambling and tv underpinning. I’m sure they are looking at doing some match-making down in Daytona to find a starlet to get on board for some cross-promotion for the season.

Joshua Farmer

Simply do away with the guaranteed spot for the charter teams and the situation fixes itself. NASCAR writers such as this woman should be calling for MORE racing, not less. So what if the polesitter ends on a hauler…IT’S RACING AND THAT HAPPENS. As for you WJW, you’re probably addicted now to some sort of SELF controlled entertainment on the Internet…maybe a game…(probably TikTok as most of it’s users are those that complain about a particular foreign made product, YET ARE giving them information by using TikTok).

I’m sick of reading at Frontstretch cries for less racing. Seriously? From a NASCAR page?

WJW Motorsports

LOL – Josh, I mentioned the ’81 500 – I’m in my 50s and also think TikTok is a commie plot. What I and so many others here are asking for is not less racing. We are just asking for actual racing – and certainly not the pack garbage they put out now on plate tracks. They won’t bother trying to fix the sport, they will just keep moving the marketing.

Jeff H

How to make it exciting again? Scrap the charter system as we know it. Before Daytona nobody is guaranteed a starting position. Everyone races their way in. After Daytona the top 35 in owner points are locked in for the next race. After the next race, the top 35 are locked for the next race. Yes some big names could be in a race your way in after a couple of bad weeks. That is why this would never happen. Drama is considered bad.


I agree. There will be a lot of press about a big name going home, but plenty of time throughout the season for that driver/team to make the playoffs.


For the 500, they should do away with the provisional. If you’re a top car and miss the race, shame on you. If Jimmie Johnson goes home, they he didn’t need to be there. Set the Duels up by date stamp on the application. Then they all race to make the show.

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