Budweiser Duel at Daytona 2014 preview: Race hard or play it safe?

Sean Gardner

The stakes are high, as Thursday’s Budweiser Duel will set the starting lineup for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When the green flag drops on the Budweiser Duel qualifying races, Jimmie Johnson is "going racing" and plans to get to the front as quickly as possible.

The defending Sprint Cup is a believer that the best strategy to evade the "Big One" is to be up front. It's a gameplan he executed flawlessly in winning the Daytona 500 and July Daytona race a year ago.

"The safest place, really, is leading," Johnson said. "... Since this package came along, we've elected to not ride in races. We've raced for every lap and it's paid off for us."

Although he plans to compete and ride in the back, Johnson is mindful of the precarious situation he finds himself in Thursday night. A crash in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited cost Johnson his backup car for the 500, and another accident in the Duel would put him in a disadvantageous position entering the weekend.

"When you get through the Unlimited and you have a straight race car sitting there, you're much more relaxed and can have fun and forget about things" Johnson said. "But it will be weighing on my mind the whole race that we could lose that car and put ourselves in a big hole for the 500."

Because of the risks associated with running in a large pack of cars inches apart, and the calamity that lurks on every lap, drivers approach the Duel with a far more conservative mindset. These drivers are all but secured of making the Daytona 500 and have far more to lose than gain during Thursday's qualifying races.

One such driver is Danica Patrick. Because of an unapproved engine change Saturday in practice, last year's Daytona 500 pole-sitter is required to start at the rear in both her Duel and in the 500 -- regardless of where she finishes Thursday.

The rule upset Patrick enough she questioned why she would even bother finishing her qualifying race and not park her car early.

"What stops me from just going out and starting-and-parking?" Patrick said. "That would be a bummer for the fans ... but I don't want to tear up my 500 car."

Then there are a handful of drivers who enter the Duel knowing their only chance of getting into the Daytona 500 comes with racing their way in and finishing in the top 15.

"We have to race our way into the 500 and it's really important for me to make it in this race," Ryan Truex said. "It's my first try and I want it to be my first start, too. We'll pull out the backup and hopefully it's as fast as our primary."

And it's not just the Duels drivers are trying to get through unscathed.

Two separate incidents within the first 30 minutes of practice Wednesday forced six drivers to their backup cars for the Duel, while another had to make extensive repairs. And Dave Blaney's Daytona 500 is extinguished completely, as his upstart team didn't have a backup to unload and instead had to withdraw.

The first Budweiser Duel is schedule to take the green flag at 7:22 p.m. ET; the second race is at approximately 9:01 p.m., and can be seen live on Fox Sports 1.

Duel 1 starting lineup
Row Inside Outside
1 Austin Dillon Greg Biffle
2 Ryan Newman Dale Earnhardt Jr.
3 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Marcos Ambros
4 Aric Almirola Matt Kenseth
5 Kasey Kahne Kyle Busch
6 Kevin Harvick AJ Allmendinger
7 Reed Sorenson David Gilliland
8 Cole Whitt Michael McDowell
9 Josh Wise Joe Nemechek
10 Alex Bowman Joey Logano
11 Danica Patrick Parker Kligerman
12 Tony Stewart Brian Vickers

* Bold drivers are locked in to the Daytona 500 field by speed or owner points

Duel 2 starting lineup
Row Inside Outside
1 Martin Truex Jr. Carl Edwards
2 Brad Keselowski Jeff Gordon
3 Brian Scott Jimmie Johnson
4 Casey Mears Michael Annett
5 Clint Bowyer Denny Hamlin
6 Kyle Larson Trevor Bayne
7 Kurt Busch Justin Allgaier
8 Landon Cassill Michael Waltrip
9 Eric McClure Jamie McMurray
10 David Ragan Terry Labonte
11 Morgan Shepherd Paul Menard
12 Bobby Labonte Ryan Truex

* Bold drivers are locked in to the Daytona 500 field by speed or owner points


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