In a stunning upset of sorts, rookie Chase Elliott claimed the Daytona 500 pole in Sunday's qualifying session behind the wheel of the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet, putting him in prime position as he makes his Daytona debut.
By winning the pole, Elliott will also start first in the opening Can-Am Duels race Thursday, which will determine the rest of the starting order for the Daytona 500. Matt Kenseth turned the second-quickest lap in Sunday's qualifying and will lead the pack to green in the second Duel on Thursday.
Sunday's qualifying session allowed all 47 entry list cars to turn their fastest laps to determine the remaining start order for Thursday's Duels, which will in turn determine the start order for the Great American Race.
Only the top two in qualifying have their starting spots locked for the 500, meaning Elliott and Kenseth will lead the field to green Sunday regardless of Thursday's outcomes—unless either is forced to change from their primary car.
Should drivers need to revert to a backup, through wreck or engine issues, they'll be forced to start from the back of the pack Sunday.
That's what makes the Duels so exciting.
Drivers walk a fine line between aggression and caution as they twirl at 200 miles per hour around Daytona's 31-degree banking, trying to pick up every spot they can to secure the most favorable starting and pit position.
Here is a look at the TV schedule and starting grid for each race as well as a few drivers to keep an eye peeled for.
Can-Am Duels at Daytona
Date: Thursday, February 18
Time: 7 p.m. ET
TV: Fox Sports 1
LiveStream: Fox Sports Go
Radio: Motor Racing Network
|Can-Am Duels — Starting Order|
|Starting Position||Duel 1 Drivers||Duel 2 Drivers|
|1||Chase Elliott||Matt Kenseth|
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||Kyle Busch|
|3||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||Jimmie Johnson|
|4||Ryan Blaney*||Carl Edwards|
|5||Austin Dillon||Kurt Busch|
|6||Denny Hamlin||Casey Mears|
|7||Joey Logano||Ryan Newman|
|8||Kasey Kahne||Ty Dillon|
|9||Paul Menard||Aric Almirola|
|10||Brad Keselowski||Jamie McMurray|
|11||Greg Biffle||Kyle Larson|
|12||Brian Scott||Matt DiBenedetto*|
|13||Michael McDowell*||Michael Waltrip|
|14||Regan Smith||Danica Patrick|
|15||Chris Buescher||AJ Allmendinger|
|16||Bobby Labonte||Michael Annett|
|17||Trevor Bayne||Landon Cassill|
|18||Clint Bowyer||Robert Richardson Jr.*|
|19||Cole Whitt*||David Gilliland*|
|20||David Ragan||Reed Sorenson*|
|21||Josh Wise*||Martin Truex Jr.|
|22||Kevin Harvick||Brian Vickers|
|NASCAR.com; * indicates non-chartered teams|
It's hard not to put the pole winner among the drivers to watch, but Elliott, 20, has to be considered given his immediate ascent under the pressure of filling Jeff Gordon's gaping void.
Elliott, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, was the 2014 Xfinity Series champion in just his first full season and finished second last year.
When Gordon announced in January 2015 he'd retire following the 2015 season, Elliott was the immediate pick to replace the 24-year veteran. What surprised the racing world was that owner Rick Hendrick announced Elliott would keep the iconic No. 24 that Gordon raced to four titles and 93 wins.
Where many would've been intimidated to fill such big shoes, Elliott welcomed the added pressure.
"[Gordon] asked me if I was OK with that, and if we were shaking hands, I'd have ripped his arm off," Elliott said at the time, per Tom Jensen of Fox Sports. "That's an opportunity that nobody would turn down."
Once he was named successor, Hendrick slated Elliott to compete in five Sprint Cup events in 2015, though he didn't finish better than 16th and twice had finishes of 38th or worse.
In four Xfinity Series races at Daytona, Elliott finished 15th, 20th, 28th and third for JR Motorsports, an affiliate of Hendrick.
But Elliott now has a full offseason under his belt with his new team and has the unwavering support of his heavyweight teammates, as shown on pit road here with Jimmie Johnson, courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports:
Hendrick Motorsports @TeamHendrick
Teammate @JimmieJohnson congratulates @chaseelliott! #DAYTONA500 https://t.co/d5UCIKeJeA2/14/2016, 7:56:09 PM
He even got a shoutout from Gordon:
Jeff Gordon @JeffGordonWeb
Really proud of @TeamHendrick & @chaseelliott. #DAYTONA500 Pole to start the season. I know there r a lot of 24 fans proud also.2/14/2016, 9:22:04 PM
Hendrick is undoubtedly the best team in NASCAR, and with the conviction from his owner and teammates, Elliott is poised to embark on a great career.
The stage is there for him to make the ultimate entrance by capping off his already impressive Speedweeks with a win in his first Great American Race. And given the run he's on, it's hard to imagine he'd let up in Thursday's first Duel.
There are a slew of great drivers who have never won the Great American Race, and Brad Keselowski sits right near the top.
Keselowski has two top-five finishes in the Daytona 500, but he's one of the best restrictor-plate racers on the circuit, with three victories at Talladega, Daytona's sister track.
Keselowski led 26 laps in Saturday's Sprint Unlimited exhibition, second only to winner Denny Hamlin, settling for ninth after overcoming early engine issues and avoiding a massive wreck in the final laps.
The 2012 Sprint Cup champion, Keselowski is one of the most aggressive drivers on the circuit, and given his middle-of-the-pack qualifying effort, he'll be gunning for a more favorable start position in the 500.
Keselowski will roll out 10th in the first Duel on Thursday in what's admittedly a stronger field compared to the contingent racing in the second Duel. He will be pitted against Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick—all top-notch restrictor-plate racers.
The 32-year-old veteran has 17 wins under his belt but hasn't quite cracked Daytona yet. His raw talent and speed with Penske's Ford engines should keep him up front Thursday if he's able to avoid trouble.
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