Daytona 500 2016: Starting Order, Top Drivers to Watch in Can-Am Duels

Daniel Kramer@dkramer_Featured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2016

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 PositionDuel 1 DriversDuel 2 Drivers
1Chase ElliottMatt Kenseth
2Dale Earnhardt Jr.Kyle Busch
3Ricky Stenhouse Jr.Jimmie Johnson
4Ryan Blaney*Carl Edwards
5Austin DillonKurt Busch
6Denny HamlinCasey Mears
7Joey LoganoRyan Newman
8Kasey KahneTy Dillon
9Paul MenardAric Almirola
10Brad KeselowskiJamie McMurray
11Greg BiffleKyle Larson
12Brian ScottMatt DiBenedetto*
13Michael McDowell*Michael Waltrip
14Regan SmithDanica Patrick
15Chris BuescherAJ Allmendinger
16Bobby LabonteMichael Annett
17Trevor BayneLandon Cassill
18Clint BowyerRobert Richardson Jr.*
19Cole Whitt*David Gilliland*
20David RaganReed Sorenson*
21Josh Wise*Martin Truex Jr.
22Kevin HarvickBrian Vickers; * indicates non-chartered teams


Chase Elliott

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:

He even got a shoutout from Gordon:

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.


Brad Keselowski

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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