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Anxiety high (sort of) for Daytona 500 qualifying races

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Michael McDowell will try to forget about the two-hundredths of a second he needed Sunday when he starts his engine Thursday in his Can-Am Duel Daytona 500 qualifying race.

For McDowell and five others, it will be a night that could determine their year. For 38 others, it's a glorified practice session for the Daytona 500 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

McDowell, third among the "open" drivers -- meaning non-charter and thus not guaranteed a spot -- in qualifying this past Sunday, can guarantee himself a berth in the Daytona 500 only by finishing the best among the four open drivers in his 150-mile race Thursday night.

The top finisher among open drivers in each race will make it into the Daytona 500, with the final two spots in the field going to the two remaining open drivers who were the fastest in qualifying speed Sunday. Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto were the two fastest open drivers, meaning they can always fall back on speed. Next up would be McDowell and Robert Richardson.

Cole Whitt, David Gilliland, Josh Wise and Reed Sorenson have no hope of making it on speed -- each must be the top open finisher in his duel to qualify for the Daytona 500.

"You've got to control your own destiny," McDowell said. "You can't plan on Blaney staying up front or Matt racing his way in. I have to put myself in position coming to the white flag, [that] I'm in the race regardless of what they do. I don't have the opportunity to protect my stuff.

"We do have the slight possibility that we can fall back on speed, but coming to the flag, you can't bank on that."

Blaney, McDowell, Whitt and Wise are in the first duel. DiBenedetto, Richardson, Gilliland and Sorenson are in the second. Blaney and DiBenedetto likely will take few risks with their cars in the duels.

McDowell was two-hundredths of a second slower Sunday than DiBenedetto. He described the entire experience as gut-wrenching.

"I wish I wouldn't have had breakfast," McDowell said. "It'll drive you crazy. Two-hundredths of a second. I got through the gears well. I think I maximized everything I could, so there wasn't a whole lot that I could've done different.

"But there are always ways to find two-hundredths; it's the same for everybody. But you got to be a little bit, to me, I just let it go a little more than that and we just didn't get in."

The only full-time driver who must race his way in is Whitt, whose Premium Motorsports team leased its charter to HScott Motorsports' Michael Annett before the season. The funding and the alliance will go a long way toward building the program for the future, Whitt said.

"You can't do anything other than try," Whitt said. "We have to race our way in. That's all there is to it."

Many of the others trying to make the field are unsure of what they'll be doing after this week. Gilliland, driving a third car for Front Row Motorsports, has no ride after the Daytona 500. Richardson is in an extra car for BK Racing, Wise is driving for TMG Motorsports, and Sorenson is in a Mike Hillman Racing car that is not expected at more races.

"We have some work to do," Gilliland said. "It's going to be exciting with only one open car from each race making it in. We have to go and try to put ourselves in the best position and hope it all goes right."

Drivers in the rest of the field will try to learn how their car works in the draft. That is extremely important for rookie Chase Elliott, who won the Daytona 500 pole. As a rookie who did not compete in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race Saturday, he has yet to experience the draft in race conditions in a Sprint Cup car at Daytona.

"We want to try to make sure we have this car next Sunday," Elliott said. "That's the main goal -- try to be smart on Thursday and know, if we can get through these duels, we can start on the front row regardless, that's important.

"Having that to [fall] back on and a little bit of comfort there I think is good. But at the same time, I still think I need to be in some positions to learn for the race on Sunday. I've never drafted in these cars, which I think is going to be important."

Also in the first duel are several drivers who are expected to be strong: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. Earnhardt and Logano each won two restrictor-plate races last year, and Hamlin won Saturday night.

The second duel features Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch as well as Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards.

"I hope I can lead and learn what it's going to do leading and where you need to be on the racetrack on the lines for a while," said Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. "That was important to see for me more than car stuff. If you do get back a little bit, just learn about your car and where to make the moves, who's fast and doing what."

Elliott and Kenseth know they will start the Daytona 500 on the front row. The 17 charter teams, not including Elliott, and the best open finisher in the first duel will line up based on their duel finish on the inside of Rows 2-19 for the Daytona 500; the 17 charters, not including Kenseth, and the best open finisher in the second duel will line up based on their duel finish on the outside of Rows 2-19 for Sunday's main event. The cars in the final two spots, awarded by qualifying speed to open drivers, will line up in the last row.