DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — One race is 60 laps. The other is 200. One race is under the lights. The other is under the Florida sun. One race features 21 cars. The other 40. That’s just the surface, but there’s more to it in terms of why Sunday’s 65th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) will look a heck of a lot different than the pair of 150-mile qualifying races that we just witnessed on Thursday night.
Part of why is Thursday’s Duels are run with varying agendas. There was no practice during this year’s Speedweeks prior to Friday. That means qualifying on Wednesday night and racing on Thursday night were done so without the aid of a practice session.
A wrinkle also involved in that is that these cars have been impounded since Wednesday night. Once you pass inspection on Wednesday afternoon, you can’t touch them again until after the Duels. Which leads to the first variation of agendas.
What you race in the Duels is what you brought down for qualifying. As a result, some teams will punt on qualifying in efforts to have a good “race” car for the pair of 150-mile qualifiers. Others, will go for the pride of potentially earning a Daytona 500 pole.
“We knew that last year we qualified fourth and Drew (crew chief) put everything he could into it,” Aric Almirola admitted. “We’re trying to break up that Hendrick front row.
“Drew and all the guys on my team take a lot of pride in building fast race cars. There’s two approaches to coming down here for Speedweeks. One is to not worry about qualifying and just make your car drive good so it’ll race good in the Duels, or two, you go for speed.
“Drew and I talked about it a month ago, and he’s like, I want to build the fastest race car I can. We’ll make it drive good after the Duels. But I want to go try and knock those Hendrick guys off the front row, and dangit, we couldn’t do it. I think we came up seven thousandths short or something like that, but still really proud of the effort that we put into bringing a really fast race car.”
Almirola says that approach caused his No. 10 Ford being a handful to drive under the lights. It didn’t handle the greatest. Was sketchy while being pushed in the draft and the Florida native felt like it made him vulnerable at times. However, even with a car in race trim, it was still bad fast.
“I just felt like we had such a fast race car that if I got the right pushes at the right time and found myself in the right position, that we could win that Duel and we could go to work tonight, tomorrow, and make it drive a little better for the Daytona 500,” he continued.
Here’s the problem with going for qualifying pace, it’s not race pace. It’s also to why a recent trend has started occurring and that’s the top 2 rows of the Daytona 500 starting lineup not reaching victory lane when it matters the most during Speedweeks.
The pole winner hasn’t won this race in 23 years. In fact, 17 of the last 21 races have seen the pole winner finish outside of the top 10 even. The last five pole winners have failed to even get to 16th in the end with the best result since 2015 being 14th by Elliott in 2017. Furthermore, the last time the pole winner even finished in the top five was 2002 (Bill Elliott). The average finishing spot for the pole winner is now 16.83.
The last win for the second-place starter came in 1993 (Dale Jarrett). They have only finished in the top 10 just four times since 2006. Just five time in the last 27 years has the second-place starter came home with a top five finish even. This average finishing spot for the second-place starter is 16.39.
For a team like Hendrick Motorsports, who’s swept the front row for the Great American Race nine times now, four of which occurring in the last five years, they’ve not turned any of those qualifying performances to race wins on Sunday’s here.
Since 2013, they’ve won six Duels as well to go along with eight poles in the last nine years.
The thing is, they’ve not won NASCAR’s version of their Super Bowl in that time frame either. Their last Daytona victory came in 2014, a year prior to this streak beginning.
With this pace again, does the pressure keep mounting as the years go by that they don’t turn this qualifying success into a win?
“Yeah, for sure,” Bowman admitted on Wednesday night. “Every year. Man, now it’s time to finish, like make it to the end. Last year I think I sat on the back straightaway for four laps before they could figure out how to get me to pit road with four flat tires.
“Yeah, it’s such a hard race to finish. We’ve crashed early, we’ve crashed in the middle, we’ve crashed late. Obviously I don’t have the answer to that. I haven’t figured out how to finish it yet.
“I know we have a really fast race car and a great group of guys that are capable of doing great. But, man, it’s been tough. We want to finish this race and finish it well.”
Second place starter, Kyle Larson, agreed. He’s never had a top five finish in any of his 17 points paying starts at Daytona. He’s had 1 top 5 finish in 35 superspeedway starts in general. He knows he has the speed. He just doesn’t have the skill to produce wins…yet.
” I don’t know, I mean, you always study before every race,” Larson said of studying tape between now and Sunday and trying to figure out how to be better here on race day. “I don’t know. We do it every week. We go over every race. Same as for Daytona and Talladega both, we go and try to probably dive deeper than normal. More of the same tomorrow.
“But I would like to kind of see how the good guys set themselves up throughout a run to be up towards the front or wherever they need to be to miss wrecks and stuff.
“It’s just a difficult style of racing that, I don’t know, I just haven’t had the best of time in my career. I used to always say it’s bad luck, but I don’t necessarily feel that way any more.
“Yeah, just try to, as you do with every racetrack, just get better.”
Hendrick has elected to go with qualifying pace and it’s came at the expense of having good “race” cars.
What about the Duel winners?
The last driver to win a Duel and the Daytona 500 in the same year was Matt Kenseth in 2012. He’s the only one to do so in the last 18 years. It’s only happened five times since 1996 at that.
That’s because you have a good qualifying spot for the Duels and being up front means you have track position. While the car may feel sketchy, it’s still at night to where the track has cooled and the grip is higher.
Plus, with Duels have half the field as the ‘500. Less cars mean less energy in the pack and less energy in the pack means it’s harder to make passes and runs to form new lanes.
On top of that, the other agenda is that you don’t have the number of open cars to make it really worth it. If 36 chartered teams know that they have a Daytona 500 spot, two of those 36 on the front row, why risk tearing up your car?
Combine all of that, and you get a vastly different race than the one that you’ll see on Sunday.