clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Can-Am Duel 2016: Drama still lingers in Daytona 500 qualifying races

Getting into the Daytona 500 is now harder, which means Thursday night’s Duel races are critical for those without a secured starting spot.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The twin qualifying races that set the starting lineup for Sunday's Daytona 500 have always featured varying agendas among those attempting to race in NASCAR's most prestigious event.

Some drivers enter the 150-mile Can-Am Duels with the knowledge they will race Sunday regardless if trouble befalls them. Others are squarely on the bubble, their status dependent on both their own performance and fluctuating circumstances. And then there is a group who knows that to secure a spot in the Daytona 500 a good finish is an absolute must.

These contradictions are why traditionally the Duels are the most dramatic portion of Daytona Speedweeks. The mad scramble to qualifying features an array of emotions from elation to anguish and everything in between.

But the charter system NASCAR introduced Feb. 9 that essentially awarded 36 teams franchises, and with it automatic entry into every Sprint Cup race, has altered the formula for how the Daytona 500 is comprised.

No longer is the starting lineup 43 drivers, it is now 40. That only leaves four open slots into the Daytona 500, two of which were claimed by Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto, who posted the fastest speeds among the non-charter teams in Sunday time trials.

"It is nice to be locked into the race," said Blaney, seventh-fastest overall. "The biggest relief for us is to know you are locked in and are good to be able to race in the 500. That kind of lets us go race on Thursday a little bit more than we would have instead of playing it conservative if we weren't."

This leaves six drivers -- David Gilliland, Michael McDowell, Robert Richardson Jr., Reed Sorenson, Cole Whitt and Josh Wise -- competing for the lone transfer position available in each Duel. McDowell, Whitt and Wise race in the first heat; Gilliland, Richardson and Sorenson are in the second.

In single-car qualifying, McDowell trailed DiBenedetto by a scant two-hundredths of a second. Had McDowell mustered just a fraction quicker speed, he and not DiBenedetto would be worry-free and in the Daytona 500.

"I wish I wouldn't have had breakfast," McDowell said laughing. "It'll drive you crazy, wouldn't it; two hundredths of a second.  I think I maximized everything I could, so there wasn't a whole lot that I could've done different."

Which is why though the methodology may be different -- and lessened to a degree -- the feelings remain the same for those whose Daytona 500 fate is still undecided. To race Sunday, you must do well Thursday night.

"I've been in this position every time, I've never been locked in," McDowell said. "But I've missed some too. You remember that and it's not a position that you want to be in.

"My plan is the similar to years past. Get in the line that is moving and get myself in a position to where if it does gets single-file that you are in that lead pack and you can make it through that first pit stop. Because that first pit stop is really the key to the race. If you come off pit road and you are with the lead pack, then there is a good chance you are in a good position."

Experience drafting is something Daytona 500 pole-sitter Chase Elliott is lacking in a Sprint Cup car. When Jeff Gordon announced he would retire following the 2015 season, Hendrick Motorsports wasted little time naming Elliott the successor to drive the No. 24 Chevrolet.

In his first start, Elliott finds himself wheeling the same car Gordon placed on the Daytona 500 pole last season and led a race-high 87 laps.

Elliott's game plan is rather straightforward, though certainly not simplistic: Keep the pole-winning No. 24 car intact to preserve his preferred starting position (a change to a backup results in the forfeiture of position), but also develop familiarity of what it's like to race 200 miles per hour in a gaggle of cars just inches apart.

For the 20-year-old, his Duel is not a means to race Sunday, but a tutorial.

"We want to try to make sure we have this car (in the Daytona 500)," Elliott said. "That's the main goal. Try to be smart on Thursday. Know if we can get through these Duels, we can start on the front row regardless, that's important.

"At the same time, I still think I need to be in some positions to learn for the race on Sunday. I've never drafted in these cars, which I think is going to be important."