Daytona 500: Your Short Track on Steroids—The Gatorade Duels 2010

David DubczakContributor IFebruary 9, 2010

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 05:  Michael Waltrip drives the #51 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 5, 2010 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The last-chance transfer race is a staple of weekly short-tracks across America. The drivers not already qualified for the feature race have one last shot at making it: finish well in the last-chance race.

Last-chance races are exciting—many drivers battling it out for those precious few spots. The prevailing mentality: I don’t care what happens to everyone else, as long as I get that spot.

Folks, today’s Gatorade Duels at Daytona are those last-chance races on an epic scale. The Daytona 500 is the biggest of them all. 39 drivers are locked in no matter where they finish in the Duels. These twin 150-mile races will allow two, and only two drivers each race to transfer. For the fifteen hopefuls, it will be the longest 150 miles of their lives.

Four spots remain. Remember, two drivers from each of these races will race in. Below is a list of the drivers playing roulette on Thursday:

Race One:
Michael Waltrip
Reed Sorenson
Max Papis
Jeff Fuller
Terry Cook
Michael McDowell
Kirk Shelmerdine

Race Two:
Mike Bliss
Casey Mears
David Gilliland
Aric Almirola
Dave Blaney
Derrike Cope
Mike Wallace
Norm Benning

Good luck to them—they’ll need it.

Unfortunately for Waltrip and Papis, their locked-in teammates are not in the same Duel and are thus unable to help them. They will need to help each other. However, Waltrip, though he is a speedway ace, is somewhat accident prone, and Papis has yet to prove himself as a good speedway racer.

But, do you remember in 2008, when Dale Jarrett was on the verge of missing his last Daytona 500? Veterans of all teams were lining up behind him to push him into that last transfer spot—Jarrett had earned so much respect from them over his career that they were not about to let him miss his last Daytona 500. Perhaps the same might be true for Waltrip.

David Gilliland has a pseudo-teammate in Robby Gordon in Duel Two with him. Robby is locked in and has a monetary interest in helping Gilliland make the show himself.

Mike Bliss and Casey Mears both have Earnhardt-Childress engines, so they might team up initially. However, when it comes down to one spot and two cars going for it, it’s every man for himself.

What Else Is Happening?

Starting position has never been too important at Daytona. Yes, it helps, but the draft helps drivers overcome bad starting positions. Many drivers even purposely race in the back for most of the day, then charge to the front with 50 or so laps to go.

So, don’t expect your 39 locked-in drivers to take too many chances, especially Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who are both locked into the front row no matter where they finish (unless they crash and need to use a backup car).

Chances are, unless these drivers are helping a teammate, they will lay back and let the go-or-go-home drivers duke it out amongst themselves. Finishing well and starting the 500 up front is important…but finishing unscathed is even more important.

The Duels will also function as test sessions. NASCAR made several changes to the car and engine package over the last few weeks, and few have really figured it all out. Drivers and teams will be experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, both on the track and in the suspension.

The 2010 Gatorade Duels at Daytona will definitely be a race to watch, and are often the most dramatic of Speedweeks. If you can’t watch it live, set your DVR. You won’t want to miss these.

-David Dubczak

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