NOTES FROM THE NASCAR NATION: THE GATORADE DUELS ARE COMPLICATED BUT EXCITING

[media-credit id=22 align=”alignright” width=”271″][/media-credit]Once a year the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series presents the Gatorade Duels, their unique heat race format that will determine the final line up for Sunday’s Daytona 500. The format for making the 500 is a little complicated but, traditionally, these Gatorade Duels are also very exciting. They also provide crew chiefs, and even the fans, some strong clues regarding what to expect on Sunday.

At your local Saturday short tracks, the teams make a qualifying run to earn a position in a heat race. The finish they earn from the heat race determines their starting positions in the main event feature. Fail to make the cut and a team loads up early for the long trip home.

Simply put, Thursday’s Gatorade Duels are the NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series’ version of heat races. However, the major difference here is the fact that the Duels are on a much higher level. For some of the Sprint Cup teams they are the golden transfer ticket to the highly lucrative Daytona 500.

On the topic of lucrative, the Gatorade Duels 150, 60 laps/150 miles around Daytona’s 2.5 mile oval, paid the 2011 winners, Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton, $56,700 plus each. Last Year’s Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne, earned $1.4 million plus. The driver that finished 43d in last year’s race, J J Yeley, earned $268,000 plus after only completing ten laps of the event.

While the Gatorade Duels are a major factor in determining a driver’s starting position for the 500, there are other elements involved in this process that makes the final starting order for Sunday’s race seem complicated and, in the cases of some teams, extremely dramatic.

First off positions one and two are already locked in via last Sunday’s qualifying session. Roush Fenway Racing drivers Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle will lead the field from the front row on Sunday. However, the Daytona 500 rules state that they still have to race in the Gatorade Duels. This is a golden opportunity for these two teams to test their primary cars for the Daytona 500 under bonafide racing conditions. However, they will also have to be careful to protect their primary rides. Any unforeseen racing incident that forces the teams to revert to the use of a back up car will find them starting the Daytona 500 from the rear of the field.

Positions three through 39 offers both unique and dramatic elements to the Daytona 500 starting field. First off, all teams within the top 35 of NASCAR’s 2011 owner’s points rankings are guaranteed a start in the great American race. In recent years there has been a lot of back and forth debate over the need for this policy. Proponents claim it’s a reward for team consistency and a major boon for signing and keeping sponsors. Opponents claim that racing should be based on performance levels and there should be no guarantees to making the starting field of a NASCAR Sprint Cup event. But as long as this policy remains in effect, the top 35 in owner’s points still stands as the ultimate golden transfer ticket to the Daytona 500.

Positions 36 through 39 has the potential for a massive amount of drama. These four positions are reserved for two highest finishing positions, from both Gatorade Duels, by teams who are currently outside of the top 35 in owner’s points. We all vividly remember last year’s Duel race when Brad Keselowski, locked into the starting field, literally pushed the underfunded team owned by his brother, Brian Keselowski, into a transfer spot that allowed him to race in the Daytona 500 . That’s an example of how dramatic a Gatorade duel can be.

Positions 40 through 42 are reserved for the three drivers, outside of the top 35 in owner’s points, who set the fastest times in last Sunday’s qualifying session. This trio includes defending Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne along with Tony Raines and David Stremme.

The 43d, and final, starting position is reserved for the past champion’s provisional. This year’s Daytona 500 has two previous NASCAR Sprint Cup champions on the entry list: Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott. Because Labonte is the most recent champion of the pair of drivers, he will have first shot at using the provisional for Sunday’s race.

Standing on the outside, with hopes are getting in, are a group of ten drivers who will be hoping to race their way into the Daytona 500 via a transfer spot. That group includes Bill Elliott, Michael Waltrip, Michael McDowell, Mike Wallace, Robby Gordon, Kenny Wallace, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek, Robert Richardson Jr and J J Yeley.

As a team owner, Waltrip has three entries in the Daytona 500 under the banner of Michael Waltrip Racing. He made a last minute deal with car owner Mike Hillman to drive in this year’s race. A former Daytona 500 champion, restrictor plate racing is Waltrip’s strong suite. From this group of ten drivers hoping to land a transfer spot on Thursday, Waltrip is the most likely to get the job done.

Also in an interesting position is former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott. If Terry Labonte races his way to a transfer spot in his Gatorade Duel event, then he will not have to use the past champion’s provisional. That means Elliott would be guaranteed a start in the 500.

The one driver, outside of the top 35 in owner’s points, that will really be scrutinized on Thursday will be Kenny Wallace. It appears that this driver has three different scenarios that could possibly place him in the Daytona 500 starting line up. The first one is obvious: he can race his way into the 500 by earning a transfer spot from his Gatorade Duel event.

A helping hand from either Trevor Bayne, Tony Raines or David Stremme could also have Wallace racing on Sunday. Again, these are the three fastest drivers, outside of the top 35 in owner’s points, who locked themselves into the Daytona 500 based on their qualifying speeds last Sunday. Wallace is fourth on that qualifying sheet. If anyone of those three drivers earns a transfer spot from the Gatorade Duels then Wallace would inherit their previously established qualifying provisional. Among that trio of drivers, Trevor Bayne is the most likely to race his way into a Gatorade Duel transfer spot. His Wood Brothers Ford was extremely strong both in the recently held practice and qualifying sessions.

Kenny Wallace’s third option would require some help from NASCAR champions Terry Labonte and Bill Elliot. If both of these drivers earn a transfer spot from the Gatorade Duels, then they will not need the past champion’s provisional available to them. That means the 43d starting position will go to Wallace.

There are 43 starting positions available for Sunday’s Daytona 500. There are 49 teams entered that will be hoping to race on Sunday. The Gatorade Duels, and the possible scenarios attached to them, makes the process of establishing the starting field for the 54th annual Daytona 500 seemingly complicated yet very exciting. We will have the final answers on Thursday. You can catch all of the drama of the Gatorade Duel 150’s on the SPEED Channel beginning at 2 pm eastern time.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com

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