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
RACE 2 – Biffle dominated a race that was the antithesis of other Speedweeks races to this point, a caution-free 60-lap sprint that included a green flag pit stop for a splash of fuel. His move to block Kenseth by darting from the low line to the high line, however, cost him the race.
Admittedly, Biffle had nothing to lose when it came to starting position – he'll still roll off second on Sunday. When he moved up, Kenseth took Jimmie Johnson with him and Regan Smith led a several car train to follow while Biffle was hung out to dry. He fell to fifth.
“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 would never have gotten done. Greg lost his drafting partner. We were able to separate him and the 78 (Smith) and we had such a huge run that Greg was kind of a sitting duck.”
Kenseth's triumph marks the first Duel win in 25 years for his team owner Jack Roush. Smith got ahead of Johnson for second, marking the second straight year the Furniture Row driver finished runner-up in a Duel. Elliott Sadler was fourth in the part-time fourth Richard Childress Racing entry, ahead of Biffle in fifth.
Blaney was the only go-or-go-home driver to finish on the lead lap, and earned a spot in the Daytona 500 for his Tommy Baldwin Racing team. Technically, two TBR entries are in the field, due to the points swap between Blaney's No. 36 that saw those top-35 points transfer to Patrick's No. 10 entry primarily fielded by Stewart Haas. Still, Blaney was relieved that the actual TBR car made it in.
“You don't want to come down here with a car this nice and miss the race,” Blaney said.
Nemechek did likewise for his small, family-run team.
“You talk about stressed,” said the driver nicknamed “Front Row Joe.” “During the race, I pitted one or two laps earlier than I should have because of a low fuel pressure gauge. Luckily Bill (Elliott, his one-race teammate) was there to pick me up. People have no clue how hard it is to make this field with such limited funds.
Elliott, Kenny Wallace (also limited by fuel pressure woes), Robert Richardson Jr. and JJ Yeley were the four from this race who failed to qualify.
Results - 60 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford
2. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 0.209s
3. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 0.475s
4. Elliott Sadler Childress Chevrolet + 0.531s
5. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 1.949s
6. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 9.363s
7. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 9.494s
8. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 9.623s
9. Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 20.532s
10. Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevrolet + 20.647s
11. Mark Martin Waltrip Toyota + 20.852s
12. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 21.151s
13. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 30.448s
14. Kurt Busch Phoenix Chevrolet + 1 lap
15. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota + 1 lap
16. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 1 lap
17. Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota + 1 lap
18. Casey Mears Germain Ford + 1 lap
19. Robert Richardson Jr R3 Toyota + 2 laps
20. Bill Elliott NEMCO Toyota + 2 laps
21. Kenny Wallace RAB Toyota + 3 laps
Did not finish:
Tony Raines Front Row Ford 9 laps
David Reutimann BK Toyota 6 laps
JJ Yeley Robinson-Blakeney Toyota 4 laps