The one thing about qualifying for the Daytona 500 is that in essence, you have to do it twice. When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand the qualifying procedures for this race. I was always thinking, “Why do they race…before the actual race?”
I finally understood why. This race is different from all the other 35 on the schedule. It’s different than the other 25 in the regular season, and despite the focus on the final 10-race Chase for the Cup, it’s different than those races combined. The Daytona 500 in NASCAR is equivalent to the Super Bowl in the NFL. It’s a different feeling when you step foot on the track, in the garage, and even in the car.
The big focus with qualifying, at least when the drivers run the two laps needed to figure out the positions, is you get to see the changes from the year before. This year, it’s changes to the speedway and the cars that get the big focus.
The new nose on the Sprint Cup cars has meant a different way of how the car feels in the draft. It means the downforce can’t be changed on the front, because the splitter is the same height for everyone. It can’t be adjusted to be up in the air, closer to the body, or grinding right against the track. Everyone’s equal, meaning there must be a new way to gain speed on a track that relies more on the people around the car more than the car being driven.
More importantly, drivers have brought to Daytona either a new team, a new sponsor, or even a new outlook. The word of the weekend has been “change” because so many changes in the off-season were evident.
Kasey Kahne behind the wheel of the No. 4 Red Bull Toyota, Marcos Ambrose in the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, and Kurt Busch now driving the “Double Deuce” Shell/Pennzoil Dodge.
Surprisingly, the most changes came from the championship car owner. No, the No. 48 didn’t get major changes. Jimmie Johnson is still behind the wheel, Chad Knaus is still the crew chief, and that combination is still the five-time defending champion team. Rather, the other three Hendrick Motorsports teams decided to do a little dance and trade some personnel.
Here’s what happened, the crew originally with Dale Earnhardt Jr. has moved over to Mark Martin, who gains crew chief Lance McGrew. The crew of Mark Martin has moved over to the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon, who’s now together with Alan Gustafson. Finally, the No. 24 crew has moved to Junior, meaning Junior gets Steve Letarte on his pit box. At the same time, Junior’s team is now in the same part of the shop as Johnson, while Gordon is now alongside Martin in another part of the shop.
Gordon’s team itself has gone under a huge change. No longer will the dominant flame colors of DuPont rule the No. 24 Chevrolet. Instead, it’s more of a cause that’s sponsoring this team. This year, for 22 of the 38 total races, it will be the AARP Drive to End Hunger on the hood of Gordon’s car. He’s planning to raise awareness, and hopefully some funding, to help end hunger in the U.S.
It seemed to work as Gordon went on to qualify second for the “Great American Race.” But, he was one-upped by someone really close to him. In fact, he was one-upped by the driver who was in his old car.
Yes, the fan’s choice for Most Popular Driver out-qualified his teammate, as Earnhardt Jr. brought the fans to their feet as he put his No. 88 Amp Energy Chevrolet on the pole for the Daytona 500. It was the second year in a row that Junior qualified on the front row, as he started outside pole last year next to teammate Martin. It was also a chance for him to feel happy, and vindicated. The last two years have not been kind to him, and in essence it hasn’t been to Gordon either.
Junior has not won a race since June of 2008, meanwhile Gordon hasn’t won a race since April 2009. Combined, in the last 108 races, the two have just two wins. Meanwhile, Johnson has won three titles, and Martin nearly won his first title, in the same timespan.
It’s a front row of two men who want to get back to victory lane. The hunger is still there, and each of them have the best view of the green flag come next Sunday.
However, the field has not been set for the Daytona 500 yet, just the front row. This Thursday, the rest of the field will be determined by the Gatorade Duals. Both Junior and Gordon will start from the pole of each race, with odd-numbered qualifiers in the the first race, and even-numbered qualifiers in the second.
History has shown that the first dual race is usually uneventful, as it’s not so much who races in, but it sets up who must race in during the second Dual. That’s the race that will be the one to watch, because if one of the back runners has the chance to race into the Daytona 500, they will go for it.
Links to both Gatorade Dual line-ups will be posted at the bottom of this article. The green flag for the first Dual qualifying race is set for 2 p.m. Thursday.
Until then, this has been part 2 of the Parks Pit Report, featuring full-on coverage from Daytona. Part 3 will come Thursday night, including a full line-up for the 53rd Annual Daytona 500.
-Positions 1 and 2 are locked into the race, no matter where they finish in the qualifying races.