Duels have big meaning

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Danica Patrick sat down in the media center after her historic Daytona 500 pole-winning effort, she was asked what the plan was for her Budweiser Duel qualifying race Thursday.

Patrick looked puzzled. She turned to her crew chief, Tony Gibson.

"I have no idea," Patrick said. "Tony, what am I supposed to do?"

Gibson: "Don't put yourself in any bad positions."

Sound advice, but not so easy to follow.

The two Daytona 500 qualifying races are NASCAR's version of a catch-22. It's 60 laps (150 miles) of weighing your options. You want to race hard and try to win, but not so hard that you risk wrecking your best car before the big race.

It's especially true for the drivers who start first in each race. The two fastest drivers from Pole Day on Sunday -- Patrick and Jeff Gordon -- will start on the front row for the Daytona 500, with one exception.

If they wreck their primary car in their Duel race and have to go to a backup car, they will start in the back for the 500. That's true for any driver, but it's extra painful if you throw away a front-row spot.

"You don't want to take the chance of wrecking the car," Gibson said. "Nobody does. But sometimes there's nothing you can do about it."

So despite his advice of avoiding bad spots, Gibson doesn't want Patrick to act like it's a Thursday stroll in the park.

"You can't run scared," Gibson said. "She's going to have to get out there and race. The 'Gen 6' car is new. Even the guys that ran [in the Sprint Unlimited last weekend] don't have the answers.

"She's going to have to put herself three‑wide and let us know what we've got. There's no way around it. If we tear it up, we tear it up. We have another one on the truck."

Everyone except Patrick and Gordon is racing for starting positions in the 500. A few of them are racing to make the show.

That's where things get complicated in the Daytona 500 qualifying rules format that only John Nash could love.

Thirteen drivers are locked in no matter what happens Thursday. They include the top six on speed from Pole Day -- Patrick, Gordon, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.

Six others have provisionals (should they need them) based on team owner points for their car from last year -- Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (he gets the No. 17 Ford points that Matt Kenseth earned).

And Kurt Busch is locked in as the most recent past champion (2004) who doesn't already have a guaranteed spot.

The other drivers must race their way in or hope one of the drivers above doesn't need to use the provisional.

Yes, even I'm confused. The bottom line is that 32 drivers are vying for 30 spots, so two drivers won't make it. But don't be misled.

No big-name driver is going to miss the race. In reality, only drivers from teams that were way down in the standings last year are in danger of going home.

So for most of the drivers, the goal is to run hard and learn all they can about the Gen 6 while racing in a big pack on a restrictor-plate track. Otherwise, you risk going into the Daytona 500 with little knowledge about how the car will perform when things get dicey. And they will get dicey.

"If you want to win the Daytona 500, you have to race in the Duels like you're going to win the Daytona 500," Gordon said. "You have to do everything to prepare yourself and your team to win the Daytona 500."

Gordon should know. He's won the 500 three times, one of nine former winners likely to be in the 43-car field.

The race also will include three former Cup champions -- Keselowski, Stewart and Kurt Busch -- who haven't won the Daytona 500, and possibly five if the Labonte brothers (Bobby and Terry) make the field.

Stewart believes drivers can't learn everything they need to know in the Duels.

"It gives you an idea, but you still only see half of the equation," Stewart said. "The bigger the packs are, the more things change. We'll see half the field on each race Thursday, then Sunday you're going to see 43 cars. You learn early in the 500 what you got."

Kyle Busch plans to see what he's got in the second half of his qualifying race. He's glad he gets to watch the first Duel before racing in the second one.

"If the first one is a wreck fest, everybody will calm down and not be so aggressive in the second one," Busch said. "It's always good to be able to sit back and watch and learn. You kind of pick up on a few things. I'll hang out in the back for about the first 30 [laps] and then we'll see what happens from there."

As Gibson told Patrick, "Don't put yourself in any bad positions."

Easier said than done.