Daytona 500 field set; Stewart, Kenseth win Gatorade Duel qualifying races
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Tony Stewart won for the 17th time Thursday at the Daytona International Speedway. And like he’s done so many times before, he now faces the challenge of transforming that success into his first Daytona 500 victory.
Stewart led the final 18 laps in the first of two 150-mile Gatorade Duel qualifying races, finishing a half lap ahead of Danica Patrick’s final-lap crash.
Matt Kenseth won the second qualifier, going from third to first on the final lap.
Unlike Saturday night’s Bud Shootout exhibition race, there weren’t a lot of big crashes. The biggest came on the ninth lap of the first Duel when Michael McDowell bumped David Gilliland to trigger a crash that also included Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Brad Keselowski and Mike Wallace.
The second qualifying race ran caution-free for all 60 laps.
Stewart is accustomed to success at the 2.5-mile speedway, including three Duel wins and five runner-up finishes. But he’s never won the biggest race – the Daytona 500.
“It’s good momentum, but it’s no guarantee obviously,” Stewart said. “It’s nice to come here, especially for Steve (Addington, crew chief) and I, being our first race together, to be able to come out and have two really good strong and solid races back-to-back is an awesome start for us.
“It’s a long race on Sunday and a lot can happen. Even though we had success today, it's no guarantee that can happen Sunday.”
As Stewart led a parade of cars through the third turn, Patrick was knocked off track by Aric Almirola on the backstretch. Her car slammed into the inside wall which allowed Stewart to win the race under caution.
Patrick wasn’t hurt.
“I don’t know if I could have done anything different,” she said. “We were just looking to finish, to be honest. Unfortunately that was not the case.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second to Stewart, followed by Marcos Ambrose in third, Jeff Burton in fourth, Carl Edwards in fifth and McDowell in sixth.
McDowell and Robby Gordon, who finished ninth, wrapped up the qualifying spots open to drivers who weren’t ranked among the top 35 last year.
In the second race, Greg Biffle started on the pole and he led a race-best 40 laps.
On the final lap, Regan Smith, Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson mounted a charge on the outside. When Biffle moved higher on the race track to block, Kenseth veered to the left and easily passed for the lead. Once he got out front, he beat Smith by two car lengths.
Kenseth’s average speed of 194.175 mph was a track record for a qualifying race.
“We just had a big run there,” Kenseth said. “Jimmie Johnson gave me a huge push there and that really worked nice for me the whole race there. Without that push, it never would have never gotten done. Greg lost his drafting partner (Smith). We were able to separate him and the 78 (Smith) and we had such a big run Greg was kind of a sitting duck.”
Since the race only set the field for the 500, Biffle wasn’t more aggressive protecting his lead coming to the white flag. On Sunday, however, things probably will be different.
“If that’s the 500, I’m either going to get pushed or wrecked – one or the other,” he said.
Although Kenseth and Biffle are Ford teammates at Roush Fenway Racing, Biffle was counting on a push from Smith; Kenseth counted on Johnson. Smith and Johnson drive Chevrolets.
Johnson settled for third, followed by Elliott Sadler in fourth, Biffle in fifth and Joey Logano in sixth.
Dave Blaney, who finished 12th, and Joe Nemechek, who was 17th, raced their way into the Daytona 500 starting lineup as the two highest-finishing drivers without a provisional exemption.
Carl Edwards won the pole for the Daytona 500 in time trials. Biffle will start second. Thursday’s results set the rest of the lineup with Stewart starting third on Sunday and Kenseth fourth.
Drivers who failed to make the starting lineup included a pair of former Daytona 500 winners – Bill Elliott and Michael Waltrip. Also missing the race will be: Kenny Wallace, Mike Wallace, J.J. Yeley and Robert Richardson.