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Old-School Appeal For 51st Annual Daytona 500
Mark Martin is on the front row and Bill Elliott is in the field, giving Sunday’s Daytona 500 an almost surreal quality.

Thing is, it’s all quite real.

Martin (No. 5 Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevrolet) is experiencing a late-career rebirth as part of the Hendrick Motorsports stable; Elliott (No. 21 Motorcraft Ford) is part of a renewed, admirable effort by Wood Brothers Racing that’s designed to run part-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series but make the most of the races they choose.

Martin, 50, qualified second this past Sunday at the annual “pole day” at Daytona International Speedway. He and top qualifier Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) are “locked” into the front row for the 500. Elliott qualified fourth-fastest to guarantee a spot in the 500. Exactly where he’ll start will shake out Thursday, after the two 150-mile qualifying races — the Gatorade Duel at Daytona — are held.

“This whole Motorcraft team – [crew chief] David Hyder, [owners]  Len and Eddie Wood – they really put a good plan together to come down here for the 500 this year and I’m so proud of what they’ve done,” said the 53-year-old Elliott.

Actually, Elliott expressed some disappointment after qualifying. After setting the fast times during the 500’s initial practice sessions, he considered the No. 21 front-row material. Such is the rapidly-restored confidence level of the two-time (1985 and ‘87) Daytona 500 champion.

The old-school look of this year’s race continues with Terry Labonte (No. 66 Window World Toyota), the series champion in 1984 and ’96. Labonte is assured of making the race via the past champion provisional, which goes to the most recent champion needing it to make the field. Labonte got some help when a more recent titlist, Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet), qualified fast enough to assure himself a 500 spot based on speed.

Qualifying Primer: Making the Daytona 500 Field

Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is unique. After all, it involves two days, two races and a previous season’s final points.

Here’s how it  works.

Coming into Daytona, one thing is known. The top 35 teams in the final 2008 car owners standings have already earned guaranteed berths in the Daytona 500.

Coming out of “pole day” this past Sunday, the top two qualifiers, Truex and Martin, were guaranteed front-row starts.

Thursday’s Gatorade Duel at Daytona, consisting of two 150-mile races, will advance the top two finishers from each race who are not in the top 35 category.

That brings the field total to 39.

The rest of the field is based on qualifying speeds from pole day by “non-35s.” That amounts to the four fastest non-35s — or three, if the past champion provisional gets used., which it will be this year by Labonte. Which means that Elliott, Stewart and Travis Kvapil (No. 28 Golden Corral Ford) have ensured themselves berths because of their qualifying speeds. (Note: If any of those three or Labonte are one of the top-two non-35 finishers in a Duel race, it will open up spots based on qualifying speeds.)

Which brings us to a field of 43.

Some further notes about the Gatorade Duel races:

They establish the starting order for the 500. The front-row qualifiers are locked in based on pole day. Based on their finish in the first Duel race, top-35 drivers  plus the two highest non-35s will be lined up in odd-number starting positions for the 500. Based on their finish in the second Duel, the top-35 drivers plus the two highest finishing non-35s will get even-number starting positions.

Duel Double: Daytona 500 Qualifying Races Make Or Break For Many Teams

Thursday’s Gatorade Duel at Daytona continues a long-standing tradition of holding qualifying races for the Daytona 500. The tradition started in the 500’s first year, 1959, although back then there was only one qualifier, a 100-miler won by Bob Welborn.

Starting in 1960, there were two events.

In 1969, the races were expanded to 125 miles, creating the “Twins 125s” label.

In 2005, the Gatorade Duel name was affixed as the races were expanded again, to 150 miles.

A footnote to this progression: From 1959-71, the qualifying races counted in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points.

Throughout the races’ history, they have served as classic Speedweeks appetizers for NASCAR’s biggest show. The Duel events represent the ultimate “last chance” races, affording drivers who haven’t already made the Daytona 500 field the chance to do so by literally racing their way into the field.

At its core, the Gatorade Duel at Daytona combines one of the basic qualifying approaches of down-home short-track racing with the biggest spectacle in NASCAR.

In recent years, good finishes in the Duel events have become even more essential. With  the institution of guaranteed starting berths to the top 35 teams in final owner points from the previous year, all “non-35” drivers vie for only four spots — two from each Duel race.

Which means some very capable teams are going to leave Daytona International Speedway on Thursday very disappointed.

Thursday, a total of 17 drivers will be trying to race their way into the Daytona 500. Some have excellent chances to do so. Some are long shots. Here’s a quick look at each, divided by their Duel race assignment, in each case, listed in order of their qualifying speed on pole day :

Gatorade Duel Race No. 1

Joe Nemechek (No. 87 Toyota): 186.807 mph, 19th-fastest. He starts ninth in the first Duel race. He has twice finished in the top 10 in the 500.

Scott Riggs (No. 36 Toyota): 185.893, 32nd-fastest. Starts 15th in the first Duel race. Riggs finished fourth in the 2005 Daytona 500.

Brad Keselowski (No. 09 Miccosukee Resorts Chevrolet): 37th-fastest at 185.571. Starts 18th in first Duel race.

Kirk Shelmerdine (No. 27 Toyota): 45th-fastest at 184.854. Starts 24th in first Duel event. Once the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt, Shelmerdine has been in one Daytona 500 as a driver, starting 42nd and finishing 20th in 2006.

Tony Raines (No. 37 Long John Silver’s Dodge): 47th-fastest at 184.106. Starts 25th in first Duel race.

Mike Skinner (No. 23 Mahindra Tractors Chevrolet): 52nd-fastest at 181.928. Starts 27th in the first Duel race. Skinner has two top-10 500 finishes and he won one of the qualifying races in 2001.

Carl Long (No. 46 Romeo Guest Construction Dodge): 54th-fastest at 181.032. Starts 28th — last — in first Duel event.

Gatorade Duel Race No. 2

Regan Smith (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet): 186.924, 14th-fastest. He starts seventh in the second Duel race. Smith was last season’s Raybestos Rookie of the Year.

Boris Said (No. 08 Scotts/U.S. Chrome Ford): 20th-fastest at 186.780. Starts 11th in the second Duel race. Said can’t be discounted. Remember his dream Daytona week in July 2006? He captured the pole and finished fourth.

AJ Allmendinger (No. 44 Valvoline Dodge): 35th-fastest at 185.770. Starts 19th in second Duel event. Looked solid on Saturday night in the Budweiser Shootout, finishing fifth.

Jeremy Mayfield (No. 41 All Sport Toyota): 43rd-fastest at 185.082. Starts 21st in second Duel race. The latest guy to jump into the driver/owner category, Mayfield has four top-10 finishes in the 500, including a third in 1998.

Mike Wallace (No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet): 46th-fastest at 184.847. Starts 22nd in second Duel race. Wallace has three top-10 500 finishes and he won the summer NASCAR Nationwide Series race at DIS in 2004.

Mike Garvey (No. 73 Jani-King Dodge): 48th-fastest at 184.004. Starts 22nd in second Duel. Garvey has 13 starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, his last coming in 2006, with none at Daytona.

Derrike Cope (No. 75 Blu Frog Energy Drink Dodge): 51st-fastest at 182.020. Starts 25th in second Duel race. He won the 1990 Daytona 500, arguably the biggest upset in the race’s history, when race leader Dale Earnhardt encountered tire problems on the final lap.

Kelly Bires (No. 51 Dodge): 53rd-fastest at 181.701. Starts 26th in second Duel race. Bires is seeking to make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start. He finished 13th in the 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series; en route to that, he finished 12th and 16th in the series’ two races at Daytona International Speedway.

Geoff Bodine (No. 64 Toyota): 55th-fastest at 180.810. Starts 27th in second Duel race. Bodine, the 1986 Daytona 500 champion, is trying a 500 comeback at the age of 59. He last made a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start in 2004. His last start in the Daytona 500: 2002, when another long-shot effort resulted in an outstanding third-place finish.

Norm Benning (No. 57 Chevrolet):  56th — and slowest qualifier — at 177.396. Starts 28th — last — in second Duel event. Benning has never started the Daytona 500 but has competed three times in the qualifying races, finishing 20th in the second race, in 2002.

Loop Data Points To Stewart And Newman As Favorite, New-Team Uncertainty Aside

Tony Stewart is the “great unknown”, for the second consecutive year.

Stewart entered last season amidst a flock of “Toyota” questions, after the Joe Gibbs Racing organization swapped manufacturers after five successful years with Chevrolet. The transition was a smooth one, as Stewart won a race and made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

This year, Stewart’s back with Chevrolet but with a new team – his own. Stewart begins year No. 1 as driver-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and questions abound whether his equipment can match his talent.

If it can, pencil Stewart in as a favorite to win his first Daytona 500.

His statistics are tremendous at the historic track, many of them tops in the series.

Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, Stewart has a series-high Driver Rating of 105.4, an Average Running Position of 12.9 (fifth-best), 41 Fastest Laps Run (third) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 68.7% (seventh).

Thus far, there’s a small, but promising, statistical sample size for Stewart in the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet.

Stewart finished third in last Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout. He had four laps led, a Driver Rating of 92.3, an Average Running Position of 10.3, 150 Green Flag Passes, and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 84.6%.

Defending 500 champion Ryan Newman faces the same questions since he’s now Stewart’s teammate/employee at Stewart-Haas Racing, driving the No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet.

Newman may also have some answers, as he enjoyed much success driving the No. 12 Dodge for Penske Racing at Daytona International Speedway.

In his eight Daytona races since 2005, Newman has a Driver Rating of 94.9 (third-best), an Average Running Position of 12.8 (fourth), 33 Fastest Laps Run (tied for eighth), 1, 540 Green Flag Passes (sixth), an average Green Flag Speed of 185.081 mph (second) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage 70.8% (third).

The only question surrounding four-time series champion Jeff Gordon: Can he get back to Victory Lane? Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) is mired in a 41-race winless drought dating back to 2007. It could end this weekend. Gordon already has three Daytona 500 wins, and a Daytona Driver Rating of 93.7 (sixth-best).

2009 Rookie Competition Looks Like 2-Man Showdown

The 2009 Raybestos Rookie of Year field is short on numbers but long on talent, with heralded Joey Logano (No. 20 Home Depot Toyota) joined by two drivers more known for open-wheel racing — former Formula One driver Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota) of Team Red Bull Racing and long-time Indy-car competitor Max Papis (No. 13 GEICO Toyota) of Germain Racing.

Of the three, only Logano and Speed are entered in the Daytona 500 and both are locked into the event via their team’s standing in the final 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup car owner points.

When the green flag drops Logano will become the youngest driver to start the Daytona 500 — at 18 years, eight months and 22 days.

Both Speed and Logano posted their first competitive NASCAR laps at Daytona this past Saturday night in the Budweiser Shootout. Unfortunately their nights were cut short when they both were caught in an accident on Lap 5, relegating them  to  25th and 28th-place finishes, respectively. 

Though Papis will not participate in the Daytona 500, he still is expecting an exciting event in his personal life this weekend with the birth of his second child.

Papis will make his first 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Off The Track ...

Community Support of Races Evident

A variety of activities are being held this week in the Daytona Beach area, in an effort to raise awareness about Speedweeks among casual fans. A listing follows.

Wednesday, Feb. 11
What: 3rd Annual Ford Race & Rock Fest on Beach Street, across from Bruce Rossmeyer’s Harley-Davidson store in downtown Daytona Beach. … Exhibits and interactive displays from NASA, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona State College and the Children’s Museum of Arts and Sciences. … Vendor giveaways and performances by Real Radio 104.1’s “Monsters of the Morning” and the legendary rock band Boston.
When: 3-11 p.m.
Where: Beach Street
For further information on this event, please visit

Wednesday, Feb. 11
What: An inaugural art exhibition for students in grades K-12. … This event is hosted by the City of Daytona Beach, the Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce and ArtHaus Foundation.
When: 4-8 p.m. both dates
Where: The News-Journal Center, corner of Beach Street and Bay Street.

Thursday, Feb. 12
What: Entertainment, living legends, show cars
When: 7-11 p.m.
Where: Main Street in Daytona Beach

Urban, Crist Part Of Off-Track 500 Lineup

Country music star Keith Urban will provide pre-race entertainment Sunday. Urban’s wife, actress Nicole Kidman, also plans to attend.  … The race’s Grand Marshal will be Florida Governor Charlie Crist.

Fans’ Forum: Voting For Chex Most Popular Driver Award Now Under Way

Voting for the 2009 NASCAR National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) Chex Most Popular Driver Award has begun. For the first time, the award will have a format change, with the top 10 drivers battling for fans’ votes at season’s end.

As in years past, voters can visit http://www.chexmostpopulardriver.com/ to vote once a day for their favorite NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. On Sept. 13, voting for the full field of 44 drivers will end at 11:59 a.m. CT.  At that point, the 10 drivers with the most votes will be announced as finalists and the vote count will reset to zero. Fans will then have 10 race weeks to cast their vote once a day to determine the 2009 NASCAR NMPA Chex Most Popular Driver winner from the final field of 10 drivers. Voting will conclude Nov. 23 at 11:59 p.m. CT and the winner will be announced at the NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Luncheon in New York City in December.

Last season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned his sixth consecutive Chex Most Popular Driver Award, which is administered by the NMPA.  Only Earnhardt and Bill Elliott have won the award six consecutive times since the inception of the award in 1953. 

“The NMPA is proud to be a part of announcing this new format,” said Dustin Long, longtime motorsports reporter and the current president of the NMPA. “It stays consistent with the other changes in our sport and we hope the fans will take advantage and vote for their favorite driver in the top 10.”

For more information and to vote on the NASCAR NMPA Chex Most Popular Driver Award, fans should log on to http://www.chexmostpopulardriver.com/

Up Next: Auto Club Speedway

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads West in Week 2 to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the Auto Club 500.

The Sunday, Feb. 22 event will be televised by FOX, The pre-race show starts at 5 p.m. ET with the race starting at approximately 6:20.

Carl Edwards is the defending champion of the Auto Club 500, while Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are tied for the career victory lead at ACS, with three apiece. Rick Hendrick leads in car owners wins with seven.

There have been 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Auto Club Speedway, dating to the debut event in 1997, which Gordon won.

Fast Facts

The Race:  51st Annual Daytona 500
The Date: Sunday, Feb. 15
The Track: Daytona International Speedway; 2.5-mile tri-oval
The Time: 3:20 p.m. ET
The Distance: 500 miles/200 laps
TV: FOX , 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius Satellite;  (Local MRN affiliates WNDB-AM 1150, WKRO-FM 93.1) 
The Polesitter: Martin Truex Jr.
2008 Champion: Ryan Newman
Schedule: Wednesday—Practice, 11-11:55 a.m. and 2-2:50 p.m. Thursday—Gatorade Duel at Daytona races, 2 p.m. Friday—Practice, 1:40-2:40 p.m. Saturday—Practice, 10:30-11:55 a.m.

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