One of NASCAR's greatest mysteries is the qualifying procedure for the Daytona 500. When Speedweeks rolls around every season, even those who have spent years following the sport aren't quite sure how to explain exactly how a driver makes the Daytona 500 field.
So let's try to break this thing down, as simply as possible. Drivers who are locked in with top-35 owner points and those who have no guarantees to make the field have very different procedures, so we'll split them up for the sake of clarity.
Qualifying for locked-in drivers:
If a driver is in a car that finished in the top 35 in owner points last season – or acquired those points in the offseason – there is no fear of missing the Daytona 500. All that matters is the starting spot.
Thursday's Gatorade Duel races (a pair of 150-mile races) will determine the starting lineup except for two positions: The pole position (first place) and the outside pole (second place).
The front row (first and second place) will be determined based on Sunday's qualifying session. The two drivers with the fastest average lap speed will start in the No. 1 and No. 2 spot for the Daytona 500.
Qualifying for drivers outside the top 35 in owner points:
Drivers outside the top 35 can get into the Daytona 500 one of two ways: Either on their qualifying speeds or by claiming one of the two transfer spots in their Gatorade 150-mile race on Thursday.
There are four spots available in qualifying (which can also consist of three on speed plus one driver who uses a past champion's provisional to make it).
If a driver's speed isn't good enough, he can finish in the top two of the go-or-go-home drivers in his Gatorade Duel. That will let him transfer into the Daytona 500 field.
Also, there's somewhat of a "last chance" you might hear about on Thursday. If one of the drivers who has made it into the field on time gets one of the Gatorade Duel transfer spots, he moves up and the driver with the next-fastest time gets in.