Budweiser Duels: How Danica Patrick Can Survive Daytona 500 Qualifying Races
Danica Patrick has received plenty of praise for winning the first pole position of her Sprint Cup career, qualifying first on Sunday for this weekend's Daytona 500. It's the first-ever pole for a woman at the Cup level, and it's generated a lot of buzz around the start of the NASCAR season.
The caveat is that she has to survive the Budweiser Duel, Thursday's qualifying race for the rest of the field, in order to maintain her starting spot.
But the amount of people talking about that obstacle seem to foreshadow an inevitable wreck. A major accident would force Patrick to go to a backup car on Sunday, forcing her to start at the back of the field.
It seems unfeasible, counter-intuitive and perhaps sets a bad example, but owner Tony Stewart and crew chief Tony Gibson could tell Patrick to pack it in early by starting and parking.
Is it disappointing? Yes. Is it outside of the spirit of the event? Sure. But is it within the rules? Absolutely.
There are no rules in NASCAR to regulate the start-and-park, usually used as a way for low-budget teams to preserve their cars while collecting prize money at regular-season events. But FAS Lane Racing brought the start-and-park to an exhibition last Saturday by ordering Terry Labonte to pull off track only two laps into the Sprint Unlimited, collecting the prize money while saving their only superspeedway car.
For most drivers, starting and parking in the Duel would be a poor move, as only 13 of them are currently locked into the field. But two, Patrick and Jeff Gordon, know exactly where they'll be starting, barring catastrophe.
Ignoring the bad karma and disdain from race fans, Patrick's biggest disadvantage from calling it quits early would be limiting her experience driving a Cup car on a superspeedway in a race environment. Sunday will mark the 43-car race debut of NASCAR's Gen Six car, so all drivers are entering somewhat of an unknown. Meanwhile, the competitive portion of Patrick's first Daytona 500 lasted only a lap after an early wreck sent her to the garage for repairs last year.
Thankfully, there's a good chance that this won't happen. Teammate Stewart starts third in the first Duel, directly behind Patrick, and has wins at Daytona in just about every race there except for the Daytona 500 itself. He'll be happy to work with Patrick to make sure both drivers learn as much as they can from Thursday's event.
But if Stewart runs into trouble—and given his incidents at Talladega last October and in the Unlimited last weekend—and the field starts getting too feisty, the idea of the No. 10 team cutting their losses and pulling in early could be worth consideration.
After all, there's no reason to put yourself at a disadvantage for Sunday when they don't give out points or money on Thursday.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.
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