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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Pairs racing is here to stay.
If you thought all the rules changes NASCAR made this week would change things, think again. The Gatorade Duel qualifying races Thursday, just like the Bud Shootout last weekend, were all about pairing up to get to the front.
Kurt Busch, the Shootout winner, made it 2-for-2 by winning the first Duel. Jeff Burton won the second Duel. Both drivers needed a partner to get there.
Bill Elliott has seen it all at Daytona. He has driven every style of Daytona 500 on the giant 2.5-mile oval for over 30 years, with restrictor plates and without them.
"But I've never experienced anything like what you have here," Elliott said after racing in the first Duel. "It's the craziest thing I've ever seen. It's like a bunch of kids playing leapfrog. It's a heck of a lot of fun."
|Bill Elliott has seen plenty in his lengthy NASCAR career, but this game of pairs racing is "the craziest thing I've ever seen."|
Elliott is in the show for Sunday and so is Michael Waltrip, who finished third in the second Duel. Waltrip will make his 25th consecutive start in the 500, 10 years after his first Daytona victory on the day Dale Earnhardt died.
Waltrip sees this new dynamic-duo racing style the same way as Elliott.
"It's as interesting as anything I've ever done,'' Waltrip said. "I've seen a little of everything here and this is another example."
Like anything new, the pairing up takes some getting used to for every fan watching and every driver racing.
There's a lot to see and a lot to learn. Things happen that surprise you, like Brad Keselowski spinning out before going back on the track and pushing his big brother Brian from the back to a fifth-place finish to get Brian into the Daytona 500.
"He's always been kind of a snotty little kid,'' Brian said of his brother. "But I shouldn't say that today because he just got me in the Daytona 500 and I owe him. I wouldn't have made it if it wasn't for him. You get a guy who knows what he's doing and he can push you to the front."
Brother to brother, teammate to teammate or just two drivers who find out their cars run darn fast together, it's all about a one-two punch at almost 200 mph.
If NASCAR was hoping the new rules this week would limit pairs racing, it has failed miserably. Changes to try to force the engines of the push car to overheat faster just didn't work. These engineers and drivers are too smart for that.
"I don't think the rule change accomplished quite what they hoped," Waltrip said. "Some guys could still run together a long time."
Some drivers had to swap position in fewer laps than they did in the Shootout, but others didn't swap much at all.
"The swap is the key thing," Elliott said. "The guys who are really good at it and do it at the right time are the ones who are going to stay up front."
The change NASCAR made to the restrictor plate, and the warmer temperatures, did lower the speeds from the blistering 206 mph the cars reached in the Shootout.
Staying below 200 mph is a good idea, but to the naked eye, the racing looked the same as it did in the Shootout, where drivers paired up and played a chess game of when to make a move.
"It is a different type of art," Burton said. "Things are happening faster than you can explain them."
The Hendrick Motorsports drivers still are trying to figure it out. The only top-10 finish for the Hendrick quartet was Mark Martin with an eighth-place showing in the first Duel.
The swap is the key thing. The guys who are really good at it and do it at the right time are the ones who are going to stay up front.” -- Bill Elliott
Jeff Gordon, who starts second in the 500, led 10 laps in the second Duel with a surprising partner in Ford driver and Cup newbie Trevor Bayne, who pushed Gordon almost the entire race.
Gordon finished 12th after getting loose on the last lap, causing Bayne to wreck behind him.
"I just could not get going on the restarts," Gordon said. "I had a blast working with Trevor. He's a good kid and a heck of a race car driver. I'm not sure why we couldn't get any momentum on restarts."
Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th in the first Duel, not so bad considering he started in the back with his backup car that hadn't been on the track all week.
"We've got to get a little more speed," Earnhardt said. "And guys are able to run a little bit longer than we are without swapping [tandem spots]. We have to get better there, but I've put our guys behind with all the wrecking this week."
Drivers have to figure whom to pair up with to get faster. And they have to think ahead to avoid disaster. Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin learned that the hard way in accidents Thursday.
Everyone is learning an entirely new form of racing. This isn't the usual three-wide pack racing with 30 cars that fans have come to expect at Daytona and Talladega.
But Burton says the Daytona 500 will come down to the same old thing in the end.
"We're going to have the first 400 miles with some stuff happening and about 100 miles with more stuff than you can keep up with," Burton said. "We'll see some different racing, but in the end of the Daytona 500, somebody will take a chance and do things they wouldn't have done 100 laps before that."
Will fans still see the typical big wreck?
"Oh yeah," Burton said.
Except this time it will happen in pairs.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.