Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth took home wins in Thursday's Gatorade Duels at Daytona International Speedway. While Stewart's came with a last lap crash behind him, Kenseth's occurred with a last-lap pass of his teammate Greg Biffle after Biffle attempted to defend his leading position.
Michael McDowell, Robby Gordon, Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek raced their way into the Daytona 500 primarily by keeping their noses clean and staying on track. Meanwhile, with Michael Waltrip failing to qualify, the 2012 Daytona 500 will be the first ‘500 since 1972 without a Waltrip in the field.
RACE 1 – Stewart won the first Gatorade Duel, while his Stewart Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick suffered a fairly large accident on the final lap.
Patrick, on the bottom line of the track with cars at least three and nearing four-wide, was nudged by Aric Almirola's car across the backstretch paved infield and crashed hard into the SAFER barrier on the infield wall. She didn't appear to lose much speed as the car slid across. Still, she was checked, cleared and released without injury.
“It happened really fast,” she said. “Everyone's on each other's doors, and unfortunately, I was part of it. We were just looking to finish and unfortunate that wasn't the case. It felt really big.”
Stewart had shot to the lead after staying out when most of the field pitted late, and held off a charge from Dale Earnhardt Jr. before the crash occurred and put the last lap under yellow. Marcos Ambrose finished third ahead of Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards. The win is Stewart's 17th at Daytona, but still has yet to include his elusive first Daytona 500 win.
“The fact that we've won 17 times here but not won on the right day is evidence that it's not a lot of momentum,” Stewart said. “But we've had strong races back to back. It's an awesome start. It's good momentum for the crew to carry that over from last year."
McDowell, who finished sixth, was the highest finishing go-or-go-homer on the day. His race, though, was not without incident. While coming from 21st in the 25-car field, McDowell's run to the top 10 included a nudge of David Gilliland through turn 1. Gilliland's car snapped left, then went back up the road to collect innocent bystanders Juan Pablo Montoya and Paul Menard – with Montoya's car particularly mangled in the sandwich.
Gordon ran from the back of the field to ninth to get his own team in the field. The car had steam coming out of the engine earlier in the race, so keeping the water temperatures low enough was key to staying on track.
“The motor ran pretty hot, so it was hard to run in the pack, but we kept going,” he admitted.
Waltrip's race ended when after a pit stop, he stayed on the apron through turns 1 and 2 before coming back onto the banking and turning into the wall. The near head-on impact into a non-SAFER barrier was a hard one, and although Waltrip emerged unscathed, he and the Hillman Racing team he ran for this race were eliminated. Waltrip will still field three cars in the Daytona 500 for Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr.
Trevor Bayne and David Stremme fell back on their qualifying speeds, and Terry Labonte on the past champion's provisional after not racing their way in. Besides Waltrip, Mike Wallace also failed to make his way into the field.
Results - 60 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Tony Stewart Stewart-Haas Chevrolet
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 0.403s
3. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 0.570s
4. Michael McDowell Parsons Ford + 0.811s
5. Robby Gordon Gordon Dodge + 0.906s
6. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 1.507s
7. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 1.642s
8. AJ Allmendinger Penske Dodge + 1.837s
9. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 2.029s
10. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 2.303s
11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr Roush Fenway Ford + 2.358s
12. Trevor Bayne Wood Brothers Ford + 2.369s
13. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 2.908s
14. David Ragan Front Row Ford + 3.644s
15. Aric Almirola Petty Ford + 1m13.690s
Did not finish:
Danica Patrick Baldwin Chevrolet 59 laps
Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota 59 laps
Michael Waltrip Hillman Toyota 51 laps
David Stremme Inception Toyota 27 laps
Mike Wallace MaxQ Ford 23 laps
Terry Labonte FAS Lane Ford 12 laps
David Gilliland Front Row Ford 8 laps
Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet 8 laps
Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet 8 laps
Landon Cassill BK Toyota 3 laps