Do the Duels mean something like it used to, my take and what I think the racing will look like on Thursday night

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Daytona Speedweeks are back. Wednesday night we witnessed single-car qualifying to set the front row for Sunday’s 65th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN). Thursday night’s twin 150’s (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN) will now determine the official starting lineup for spots 3-40.

However, does Thursday night’s Bluegreen Duels in Daytona, mean as much now as it once used to?

42 racecars are on this year’s entry-list, with only two of them that are going home. That’s far better than having no bumping in 2018. However, with so few missing the field for this year’s Great American Race, is it as special as it once was.

The Duels used to be a pair of 125-mile qualifying races in the middle of the day. They could serve as a purpose for a longer Daytona 500 practice session, as they each raced at a similar time as the ‘500 would. You could effectively collect some data to use for the rest of Speedweeks.

Also, by running in the day, the fan base felt like this race was more special in a sense that it had an opening day of the NCAA Tournament feel. If you were at work or school, you often wondered what you were missing. If you had a chance, you would watch or listen to part of it while there. If you had the luxury of nice parents or a good boss, you could miss school or have taken the day off to watch.

It just had that extra specialness feeling to it because of that.

Now, it’s a primetime event under the lights. You get no data for doing so as there’s nothing to gain from your car on Thursday night and apply it to Sunday afternoon. Day time conditions and nighttime conditions are vastly different and on a track that is temperature sensitive, you can do more harm than good to make changes based off the Duels.

Plus, night conditions will add more natural grip to the handling of these cars and by adding more track grip, your car handles better and also runs faster. By doing so, it becomes harder to pass.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 17: Kaz Grala, driver of the #50 Pit Viper Sunglasses Chevrolet, reacts after the NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #1 at Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

It’s also harder to pass when there are only 21 cars in each field compared to nearly double that amount (40 cars) on Sunday. With few cars, you get less energy and less energy in a pack, especially one that has more natural grip already, makes it all that much harder to pass.

Which is why the main focus now on the annual twin-150’s having now turned into just good storylines surrounding the open cars that are racing their ways into the final four spots instead. That’s because all 36 chartered teams are automatically into the big show. It doesn’t matter where they qualify on Wednesday or finish on Thursday, they know that they have a spot locked into the Daytona 500.

That leaves 6 cars for the final 4 spots. The top two open cars on speed on Wednesday locked themselves in too. That’s also because if they finish second or third in their Duel among open cars, they fall on back their speed. If they’re the top finisher in their respective Duel, then the second placed open car in that Duel gets the 39th and 40th spots.

These teams are typically smaller ones which creates good stories. I mean just last year you had the NY Racing teams’ story with Greg Biffle or The Money Team racing their way in with Kaz Grala. This year’s open cars feature bigger teams and bigger personalities.

Jimmie Johnson is one of the six. So is Travis Pastrana. Johnson is a seven-time series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner. Pastrana’s name is synonymous with extreme sports. Both however are already locked into the Daytona 500 on speed, so how much of a story will they be on Thursday night?

You also have NTT INDYCAR Series driver Conor Daly with The Money Team this time around.

The other half of the open field consists of Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill. Zane Smith won last year’s Truck Series race here as well as the season championship. Hill won the Xfinity Series race a year ago. While this set of open drivers aren’t as “sexy” as the first three, they could have a say in this under the lights on Thursday.

Which is why these stories actually overshadow the Duels in and of itself. There’s a lot left to be desired in these pair of 60 lap races.

We know they’ll be quick races. 13 of the last 14 have been completed in less than an hour with each a year ago being 48 minutes in length. Most of the racing is a little chaotic early jockeying for position, very calm from there on out until about 5 to go.

You have to make 1 pit stop to make it on fuel and that usually occurs near midway. Manufacturers will pit together which thins the field out into a trio of groups between Chevrolet, Toyota and Ford.

The byproduct of the charter system is why race hard in these races if you already know that you have a spot? Same for the 2 open cars?

With only two spots on the line among four drivers in the two Duels, what incentive did the other 38 have to race hard? Why not work in a draft with each other but take care of one another?

They’d do just that.

Remember, it’s harder to pass at night and there’s less energy in the pack, so with knowing that you have a spot into Sunday’s field, why risk crashing by fighting too hard to gain an extra spot or 2. Likewise, why pull out of the high speed train and risk not having any drafting help and going from a good to decent finishing spot, which is a good starting spot into the ‘500, to falling to the back and having a bad starting spot for Sunday?

That and technology have changed the way Speedweeks looks.

In the not so distant past, simulations have led to teams pretty much already knowing what their car has in it for the ‘500. Why wad up a race car when you already pretty much know what you have? With simulations being enhanced and not really very many big swings to the racing package on superspeedway’s from year to year, most teams knew what they wanted out of their race cars come February.

Which is why there’s so few practice sessions now. Heck, we don’t have a practice before the Duels at all. The Duels in theory is the first time on track for multiple cars during Speedweeks.

Last year and even in recent memory at that, drivers could get away with running on their own in practice or even with their teammates during those same practice sessions. It was just a few short runs to check ride heights and to confirm what you really already knew the park it until the ‘500. No need to risk anything in the Duels either.

So, with that said, due to the limited supply and teams not having full inventories still yet, is it worth the risk to do much drafting in the Duels?

For a race that sees no one wanting to tear up a bunch of equipment ahead of the big prize this weekend, you combine all of these factors and get some likely tame racing for longer spurts of time.

Which leads to, a quiet night of racing. Which also leads me to wonder if something needs to be done or this race further gets more and more pointless by the year. Do you move it back to an afternoon weekday event which feels more special or do you leave it in this timeslot?

Nothing needs to be left off the table here.

The whole reason this event was moved to under the lights was due to TV. But how many fans are truly looking forward to watching paint dry for a couple of hours on a Thursday night?

At least on a Thursday afternoon, you got that excitement that you’re playing hooky from school or trying to hide from your boss that you’re watching or even listening to the twins. It just felt special. The move to under the lights feels diluted, especially in the fact that it doesn’t mean as much anymore.

Odds and Ends

  • Over the last 33 Duels, just once has a pole winner that race won.
  • 10 of the last 11 straight Duels have been won from the 3rd starting spot on back.
  • 13 of the last 15 Duels have been won from a starting spot in the top 4 Rows (Keselowski was 9th last year, Buescher 14th)
  • 16 of the last 18 Duels in fact have been won from a top 10 starting spot.
  • 23 of the last 28 Duels have been won from Row 2 on back

Odd Stat

The last Duel winner to win the Daytona 500 was Matt Kenseth in 2012. He’s the only one to do it in the last 17 years. In fact, its only been done just five times since 1996.

Of Note

The winner of the second Duel has led very minimal laps lately. Austin Dillon led two total laps in 2021’s second Duel but was victorious. William Byron one upped him with three laps led in his Duels win in 2020. Joey Logano only led the final lap in the second race of 2019. Denny Hamlin led only four laps in the 2017 race. Chris Buescher led 17 laps a year ago.

That’s four of the last six years that the winner of the second Duel led four or fewer laps but still reached victory lane.

Meanwhile, the first Duel was the opposite. Aric Almirola led 52 of 60 laps (86.70%) in the 2021 race. Logano led 19 of 60 (31.70%) in 2020’s. Kevin Harvick prior led 44 of 60 laps (73.30%) in his win a year prior. Chase Elliott led 25 of 60 (41.70%) in his 2017. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 43 of 60 (71.70%) in 2016. Brad Keselowski’s four laps led last year was the anomaly.

That’s five of the last seven first Duels to where the winner led at the very minimum 19 laps.

From 1972 to 2004 the Duels were scheduled for 50 laps each and during that time frame eight of the Duel events had a driver lead 100% of the laps from flag-to-flag – NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip was the first to accomplish the feat in 1988; he was later joined by Dale Earnhardt (1991,1998), Davey Allison (1991), Ernie Irvan (1996), Bill Elliott (2000), Ricky Rudd (2000) and Jeff Gordon (2002). The race was moved to 60 laps in 2005 and ever since the most a driver has led in a Duel event is 86.7% (52 laps of the scheduled 60) by Aric Almirola in 2021.

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