Daytona 500: 10 Bold Predictions for the Gatorade Duels

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IFebruary 16, 2011

Daytona 500: 10 Bold Predictions for the Gatorade Duels

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    The Gatorade Duels mark the first semi-meaningful races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, as they are used to determine the starting lineup for the Daytona 500.

    While the top-35 rule dictates that these events do more to order already-locked-in cars than they do to determine which underdogs are going to make the race, they still mark the first race situations for at least half of the drivers per event.

    So, while some of the old drama has been sucked out of the 150-mile events, there's still plenty of fun to be had tomorrow, especially as NASCAR continues to tweak the cars in attempt to slow them down and end the two-car drafts.

    What's going to go down tomorrow? Let's consider:

1. Somebody Meaningful's Gonna Wreck

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    No, I don't mean somebody trivial, like some poor underdog team that got an unlucky break and blew a tire.

    I'm talking a top team—somebody that looked like a Daytona 500 contender—that's going to have to go to a backup car for the race. (Yes, this just happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in practice, but I mean something else is going to happen in one of these two races.)

2. A Front-Row Starter Will Win His Duel

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    Now that Junior's pole-winning car is wrecked, I should put the majority of my eggs in Jeff Gordon's basket on this prediction.

    JG needs a win to get back on track after a disappointing winless 2010. It's true that you have to keep in mind that Junior's last Duel win, in 2008, came when he started in the back of the field, but I just see him riding around in order to protect that backup car.

3. Ten Leaders Per Duel

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    Last year's duels had six and eight leaders, respectively. I'm going to guess ten per.

    You have 60 laps to shuffle around, and as long as there are incredibly effective two-car drafts, they'll be doing just that, and quite a bit.

    Ten leaders per race isn't out of the question to me.

4. Neither Duel Winner From 2010 Defends

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    Last year, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne were the two drivers to take the two duels. I don't see either repeating this year, especially because both are in the same race this time around.

    Kahne's still getting used to Team Red Bull in his lame-duck single season with them before taking over a big-time Hendrick Motorsports ride. Johnson is going to have two of his teammates, Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, running with him, and all three could work together to ensure that no HMS car starts worse than fifth on Sunday.

    But don't be shocked if Johnson's the one to push Martin.

5. An Underdog Blows An Engine

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    The four true underdogs in the duels are Michael McDowell, J.J. Yeley, Derrike Cope, and Brian Keselowski.

    All are driving for barely-funded teams, starting in the back of their respective duels. All four are well off the pole pace, with Cope and Keselowski each nearly ten miles per hour off that pace.

    In all likelihood, all four will miss the Daytona 500, but I have at least one missing due to a blown engine over just hanging around the back of the field.

6. Terry Labonte Races In

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    Yes, Labonte is locked into the field due to his past champion's provisional from 1996.

    Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil, and Joe Nemechek are in on speed as well. But if any of these drivers take one of the two transfer spots in their respective duels—Elliott and Nemechek in the first, Kvapil and Labonte in the second—one of the next four fastest go-or-go-home drivers (Michael Waltrip first among them) makes it into the race.

    Frank Stoddard has always had a little bit of luck at Daytona as a car owner—remember how fast Boris Said was in years past, even taking a pole in July 2006.

7. Other Race 2 Transfer Spot Goes To...Todd Bodine

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    The Onion will pull a Daytona triple this weekend, running in the Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series, and Camping World Truck Series, all on the dollar of Tire Kingdom.

    But this car is a one-time deal, running for pride more than anything, as Bodine's focus will remain the trucks.

    This is a shot at glory, and nothing more.

8. Bill Elliott Gets The First Transfer Spot In Race 1

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    Phoenix is the last small-time team to win a plate race, with Brad Keselowski at Talladega two years ago.

    They'll do well in this race with the still-quick-Elliott...

9. Guaranteeing Dave Blaney A Spot...

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    ...which will lock Dave Blaney in by virtue of his speed in qualifying (fifth-fastest of the go-or-go-homers)...

10. And Giving Kevin Conway A Spot In The Show

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    ...and keeping last year's Rookie of the Year (cough, unopposed) Kevin Conway another shot at establishing himself as a Sprint Cup-worthy driver.

    It'll be a great weekend for the small-budget NEMCO Motorsports, with both of their cars in the Daytona 500. Meanwhile, McDowell, Yeley, Cope, Keselowski, and an unlucky Casey Mears will go home. Mears will mostly be a victim of being placed in the same qualifying race as his teammate, Todd Bodine.

    That's what I've got for tomorrow - tell me what y'all think.