Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon have qualified on the front row for the 2013 Daytona 500 and might control their destinies more than any other driver in their quest to win next Sunday’s Great American Race.
More than ever before, qualifying on the front row for the Daytona 500 is a huge advantage for deciding strategy for the rest of the weekend. And I know that you’re thinking the Daytona 500, a restrictor plate race, and its qualifying results don’t matter, right?
Well, not quite.
This year’s 500 is a different matter entirely because of the new sixth generation Sprint Cup car.
Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited and the practice sessions leading up to it have shown the new car to be somewhat unstable and highly combustible in large multicar packs. The Budweiser Duels will likely feature more of the same, making it likely that Patrick and Gordon will be more conservative on Thursday in order to avoid the major accident that is sure to occur.
Gordon has already announced that he plans to sit out draft practice on Wednesday, the next time the Sprint Cup cars are scheduled to hit the track.
It won’t be a popular decision in the eyes of the fans but Patrick and Gordon have an obligation to their respective teams to protect what are obviously two extremely fast race cars. The three most recent times these cars have lined up in a big pack – Preseason Thunder, Sprint Unlimited Practice and the Sprint Unlimited race, large melees have ensued each time. The risk versus reward ratio is just too great if you’re the No. 10 and No. 24 teams.
This is especially true for Gordon who will compete in his 21st Daytona 500 on Sunday and has very little to learn or to prove in a qualifying race.
The proposition is a little dicier for Patrick. She will be competing in just her second Daytona 500 and has very little experience in the event after crashing out in the opening lap of last year’s race. Most of Patrick’s drafting experience is in the two-car tandem and she just doesn’t have the big pack experience necessary to challenge for the win.
If there was ever a race designed to give her maximum experience with decreased risk, Thursday’s Budweiser Duel is that race. The first Duel, which she will lead to the green flag, has just 23 cars starting in it and will also feature teammate and car owner Tony Stewart as a safety net. Crew chief Tony Gibson is also one of the more experienced play-callers in NASCAR, giving her a slight margin for error.
On the other hand, the first Daytona Duel has traditionally been the more wreck-filled of the two races – a fact that has to be in the back of the mind of the Patrick brain-trust.
A car at Daytona with the speed that Patrick (and Gordon to a lesser degree) has shown only comes around once every few years. Starting up front, and staying there, at Daytona has shown to be the most effective way to win at the circuit and neither front row driver can afford to risk that advantage.
But what do you think? Should Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon play it conservative on Thursday afternoon or race for the win? Tell us in the comments section below!