All eyes on the desperate 10 in Duels
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Thursday is the one time all season where you need to watch the racing at the back instead of the front. The back is where the action is.
The Duels, the two qualifying races for the Daytona 500, are misnamed considering 39 of the 49 drivers on the 2.5-mile oval already are qualified for Sunday's season-opening event.
But the ones who aren't in the show, the ones who will bang and bash with increasing desperation as the laps tick off, will start at the back of the pack.
More than likely, they'll be toward the back or the middle most of their 60-lap event. It's true drama for the serfs of Cup racing, hoping to race well enough to get the keys to the kingdom, in this case, entry into the biggest race of the year with the biggest payday.
Just getting to take the green flag Sunday is well worth it. J.J. Yeley earned $268,550 last year for finishing last and going to the garage with "engine problems" on Lap 10.
Some people are complaining about Daytona adding a $200,000 bonus this year for the driver who leads the 500 at the halfway mark. Who deserves the money more: The driver who works hard to lead the race after 100 laps or the one who start-and-parks after 10 laps?
I'll take the halfway leader, thank you.
But the only bonus Thursday is out-racing the other non-qualified drivers to claim one of the four remaining spots in the field. The problem for fans is they need an Ivy League mathematician with good eyesight just to tell them who's in and who's out at any given moment during the two races.
And we're not talking about Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, etc. The drivers that most fans really care about are only in this event for a practice session. Even Danica Patrick already knows she's in the race.
The 39 drivers already in are racing for starting position, except front-row starters Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. They're locked in up front if they don't wreck Thursday, because if they wreck they would be forced to have to go to a backup car and thus the back of the pack when the green flag drops.
For the qualified drivers, Thursday is all about staying out of trouble and learning everything you can for Sunday's race. In this case, there's a lot to learn.
The Bud Shootout crashfest Saturday night left all the drivers wanting to figure out where the line is on pushing another car and drafting in the big packs.
The new rules package, designed to limit pairs racing, makes the cars more unstable to drive. It's more exciting to watch and more dangerous on the track.
"One of the great things about the tandem racing is it separated the pack," said Jeff Burton. "One of the bad things about the tandem racing is people thought it was boring. At the end of the day, it is the driver's responsibility not to cause wrecks, but it is just really hard. It is a very difficult thing to try to figure out."
The theory is a driver is safer up front, probably avoiding the inevitable carnage to come toward the back. But Edwards isn't buying it.
"We're likely to wreck up there in the front, too," Edwards said after winning the pole Sunday. "I truly don't know there's a safe place on the race track with this style of racing.
"But the thing that's really good for me is that Greg is a guy who has been my partner at these restrictor plate races and he's starting right there with us. We can work together. I know Greg has my best interests in mind, just as I do for him, so that kind of makes me feel better."
Edwards and Biffle will have a checklist for Thursday, hoping to figure out all they can in 60 laps, things they can file away until the 500.
Track temperatures Thursday afternoon will be much closer to what drivers will experience in the 500 than what they had Saturday night.
So Thursday is a chance to test things out. But it won't include the all-out craziness of the Shootout when drivers have nothing to lose. Except for those desperate 10, the ones who have everything to lose.
Two members of the Wallace family, Mike and Kenny, also will attempt to race their way into the show.
Kenny Wallace and Dave Blaney are starting on Row 7 (better than any other non-qualified drivers) in the second race, so they only need to hold their spots. Joe Nemechek, Elliott, Robert Richardson and Yeley are the guys they need to beat in the second race.
"I wouldn't wish this on anyone," Waltrip said of the pressure he'll feel on Thursday. "I've experienced every emotion here except missing [the 500], and I don't want to experience that now."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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2012 Daytona 500
The 54th running of the Daytona 500 is in the books. What started as a new season of hope for all ended its first chapter with one of the most memorable events in NASCAR history.