I’m writing this after today’s time trials for next Sunday’s Daytona 500. Under normal circumstances, the entire 43-car starting lineup for the race would now be set. But the Daytona 500 is different. In keeping with a long-established tradition, we are going to have pair of qualifying races next Thursday and not until they are done, will we know the rest of the lineup.
Now called the Gatorade Duel, they are a pair of 150-mile races, with half of the entries allocated to each race. Starting positions 3 to 39 are determined by the finishing positions in the two 150-milers, but I won’t even try to explain how that works. I’ll leave it up to the TV commentators on the Thursday race broadcast.
The important thing to remember is that, of the 43 starting positions, 39 are already guaranteed – the standard 35 with guaranteed starting positions, plus three on qualifying speed (Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil and Tony Stewart) and Terry Labonte who will get in via the former champion provisional if he needs it. That leaves just four more places to be settled among the remaining 17 hopefuls. Who they are will depend on the outcome of the twin 150s, so each of the lucky four may get into the race as the result of a strong finish in their 150-miler or on the basis of their qualifying speed.
The one thing that I am sure of – it really doesn’t matter much who these final four are, none of these 17 drivers is committed to anything close to the full season. A.J. Allmendinger is the closest with a sponsor commitment for a number of early-season races in the No. 44 Dodge. I’ll be pulling for him on Thursday.
Does that mean that Thursday’s races aren’t worth watching? Not at all. After all, this is the second day of racing after the long winter hiatus. For my money, the racing is what its all about, not the championship points, and these two short races may give us some of the best competition of the year.