NASCAR Gatorade Duels Results: Long Shots and Sure Bets

Lee ScogginsContributor IFebruary 17, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17:  Regan Smith, driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet,  Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Dodge, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #4 Red Bull Toyota, Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet, and Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Crown Royal Ford, race during the first race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
John Harrelson/Getty Images

With a fifth-place finish in the second Gatorade Duel, Brian Keselowski is probably the biggest surprise to make the field for the 53rd running of the Daytona 500. With help from his brother, Brad, Brian was able to make his way to the front of the pack at the end of the race to secure his spot for Sunday.

Keselowski's performance is surprising given the fact he is driving a car owned by his father with no sponsor on the hood. Plus, he turned in some of the slowest speeds during the practice sessions. His finish highlights the point that the fastest car won't necessarily win the Daytona 500.

The two big winners from the Duels was Kurt Busch, driving the No. 22 for Penske Racing; and Jeff Burton, driving the No. 31 for Richard Childress Racing. Busch and Burton won their respective races on Thursday putting them on the second row for Sunday's race.

Another big winner from the Duels was Michale Waltrip, driving the No. 15 NAPA car. His third-place finish in the second Gatorade Duel gives him a great starting position for the 500 and a strong shot at contending for the win on the 10th anniversary of his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win. That feat was denied the celebration it deserved because of the death of Michael's boss, Dale Earnhardt Sr.

The hard luck story of the day would have to be Casey Mears. The No. 13 Geico Toyota blew its engine on the third lap of the second Duel, knocking Mears out of a chance to qualify for the 500. This was the second blown engine for the No. 13 and may point to a dismal season if the problem continue for this team.

To be honest, there are no sure things for any race on a restrictor plate track, but Kurt Busch has earned the designation of favorite for the Great American Race. With his win in Saturday's Budweiser Shootout and today's win in the first Duel, Busch should be a real contender if he gets a good running mate on Sunday. For today's effort, he paired up with Regan Smith and the performed flawlessly.

Team mates were the order of the day in many cases. The cars of Stewart Haas Racing, Rousch Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports were able to find teammates to draft with for much of their runs in the Duels.

That's not to say that there weren't a few odd pairings as well. One of the most impressive pairs was three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, running with 500 rookie Trevor Bayne, and doing so very effectively. For a good portion of their race, Gordon and Bayne ran in the top five. Bayne picked up invaluable drafting experience running with the four-time champion.

The four drivers racing their way into the 500 were Bill Elliot and J.J. Yeley from the first Duel, and Waltrip and Keselowski from the second. J.J. Yeley's finish was impressive because he ran essentially by himself after a green/white/checker restart at the end of the first Duel.

There were several surprises in the Gatorade Duels, which hints at what fans have to look forward to in the 53rd Daytona 500 on Sunday. There are also some indications that drivers who are expected to do well will be running at the front of the pack.

One thing is almost certain: the racing will be intense and fans are in for a treat. With a new track surface, a new style of drafting, and speeds approaching 200 mph, fans, drivers and crew members will have their adrenaline pumping.