Jimmie Johnson, who elected to stay out on old tires, beat Kevin Harvick by a splitter to win the first Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway. In the second Duel, Kasey Kahne beat Tony Stewart in a drag race down off the final corner to earn the victory.
The combined margin of victory was 0.02 of a second (Johnson won by .005 and Kahne won by .014.) The two Duel finishes were reminscient of Kevin Harvick’s close victory over Mark Martin in the 2007 Daytona 500, and they’re exactly what NASCAR needs and wants to prove that racing can still be exciting.
By virtue of winning their respective duels, Johnson will start third and Kahne will start fourth in Sunday’s Daytona 500. That gives Hendrick Motorsports the first three starting positions in the race. Mark Martin took the pole in qualifying and Dale Earnhardt Jr took the outside pole.
Michael Waltrip, who needed to race his way in during the first Duel, ended up spinning and crashing into the inside wall, ending his chances of racing his way in. Michael McDowell, Max Papis, and Todd Bodine raced hard for the first two transfer spots.
Coming out of the final corner, McDowell had the first transfer spot locked up, while Papis and Bodine battled for the second one. Bodine, who was put in Kirk Shelmerdine’s No. 27 at the last minute, ended up hitting the wall, killing his momentum and allowing Papis to drive away from him. A very, very humble and happy Papis cried after racing his way into the Daytona 500.
In the second Duel, Waltrip still had an outside chance to make the race: if Scott Speed or Bobby Labonte raced their way in by finishing in one of the top two tranfer spots, Waltrip would be in the race based on his qualifying time.
Waltrip watched Duel 2 in the studio, while Bobby Labonte, Mike Bliss, Casey Mears, and Scott Speed battled for the transfer spots. Every pass, or near miss, must have been amplified 100 times for Waltrip, who at times looked like his heart was about to jump out of his mouth.
In the closing laps, Mike Bliss, in a back-up car, had the first transfer spot locked up. But Mears, Speed, and Labonte were battling for the second spot. Mears appeared to have it, but Paul Menard checked up in front of him, killing his momentum, allowing Speed to pass him and earn the final spot.
Waltrip cheered Speed as he crossed the finish line. He, then, breathed a sigh of relief, and the tears started flowing. Waltrip will make his 24th consecutive start in the Daytona 500.
Jeff Gordon will go to a back-up car after getting caught up in a wreck with Waltrip and Regan Smith. Gordon went on to finish 10th in his Duel, but will start at the rear of the field on Sunday.
If the Duels were any indication, Sunday’s 500 is shaping up to be on heck of a race. The Duels featured great racing, lots of passing, and a lot of two- and three-wide racing, which makes for a much better race for fans than a game of follow the leader.
Once the smoke cleared, the following go-or-go-homers made the show: Bliss, McDowell, Speed, Papis, Bill Elliott, Joe Nemechek, Labonte, and Waltrip. The drivers who did not qualify are Reed Sorenson, Mears, David Gilliland, Jeff Fuller, Aric Almirola, Terry Cook, Dave Blaney, Derrick Cope, Todd Bodine, Mike Wallace, and Norm Benning.