Commentary

Dueling emotions at Daytona

Updated: February 24, 2012, 11:53 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A couple of things to know about the annual qualifying races for the Daytona 500:

You can earn your way in and buy your way out. Or you can buy your way in when you would have been out.

Danica Patrick is in the show Sunday (thanks to an earlier points swap), even though she would have been out after a massively scary crash on the last lap of the first race.

Robby Gordon is in, after racing through adversity Thursday, but he would happily sit out if the price is right.

Two of the best drivers in NASCAR came out winners Thursday -- Tony Stewart in the first race and Matt Kenseth in the second 60-lap event.

[+] EnlargeRobby Gordon
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireRobby Gordon qualified for Sunday's Daytona 500, but his seat for the Great American Race is for sale.

The first Duel had two big wrecks; the second one was green and clean. You never know.

Robby Gordon gave a speech that could bring tears to your eyes when he walked in the media center after battling his way into the 500 field.

He overcame an overheating engine and started at the back. He praised his tiny eight-man team. He talked about buying an engine from Roger Penske so he can race hard on Sunday.

It was a feel-good moment. Emphasis on "moment."

As he walked out, Gordon made it clear his joy was for sale. Gordon said he would sell his spot in the 500 to Michael Waltrip, who crashed in the first qualifying race and didn't get in.

Hey, joy of getting in is one thing. Cash is another. Business is business. Gordon's ride was there for the right price, but Waltrip told Gordon he wasn't interested.

That would've demeaned the whole idea of the qualifying races, but it is what it is.

Gordon, Michael McDowell, Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek raced their way into the Daytona 500. Waltrip and Bill Elliott, two former 500 winners, did not.

"It's amazing," McDowell said. "This is the start of big things for us. It's been a tough road, but I hope this shows that I belong here. We have six guys back in the shop that gave us the best car."

Six guys. Hendrick Motorsports probably has more than six guys polishing the trophies in the shop.

The little guys of Cup like McDowell and Nemechek, the ones who don't have race shops that look like small universities, are the stories that make the Daytona qualifying races worth watching.

Yes, they start-and-park at most events, a situation many of us deplore, but they fought their tails off to make the biggest event of the year.

"If you don't make this race, you never recover," Nemechek said. "You're behind all year. It helps pay some bills we've already spent to be here. It makes it all worth it."

Along with the happy moments, Thursday also included disappointment. The Wallace brothers, Mike and Kenny, are out. So are J.J. Yeley and Robert Richardson.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesMatt Kenseth celebrated after winning the second Duel 150-mile race Thursday at Daytona.

"I know I gave it my all but had a part failure," Kenny Wallace said. "If I would have made a mistake on the track I wouldn't be able to live with myself."

Just bad luck, but some drivers didn't need luck. A few drivers are in who wouldn't be if not for rules that got them there. Terry Labonte parked his ride early (it's the only car his team has) knowing he already was in as the most recent past Cup champion (1996).

"I disagree with that rule," Gordon said. "It should be based on whether you were with that team when you won the championship. It's just not right for the rest of us who bust our butt to get in the 500. It takes a spot from other guys who need to get in."

Yet Gordon is perfectly willing to sell his spot for a half million bucks, maybe more. He's guaranteed of making at least $260,000 Sunday, even if he finished last.

Waltrip's sponsor is Aaron's, which already is in the race on Mark Martin's Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. Otherwise, buying his way into the show would be a no-brainer.

Patrick doesn't have to worry about that after her jarring crash. Her spot was guaranteed, but she raced well. Patrick was running ninth with half a lap to go before Aric Almirola got pushed into her right door panel and sent her car speeding and slamming into the inside wall.

Thank goodness for the SAFER barrier. She walked away, mad but unhurt. It was the type of crash after which you shake your head. Serious injury, or worse, was avoided because of the collapsible wall and the head-and-neck restraints in the car.

They made a difference for Patrick on Thursday, and they'll make a difference for other drivers Sunday with the return of pack racing at Daytona.

The Shootout last weekend was no illusion. The cars raced in packs again Thursday until it was go-time at the end when drivers tried to pair up and speed to the front.

A lot of engines are running hot, part of the rules package to restrict pairs racing. It's a fine line for NASCAR. Making sure the engines stay cool also would mean a better chance for drivers to pair up, something fans don't want to see.

What fans will see Sunday is the best of the best racing in old-school pack formation, with danger looming on each lap, trying to win NASCAR's biggest prize.

And you'll see a few drivers who aren't among the best, thankful to be in the show and hoping that can beat the odds again in a race that could change their life.

That's something you can't buy or sell.

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 terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter