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Crash-filled qualifying races leaves teams scrambling to prepare for Daytona 500

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Eight drivers are now in backup cars for the Daytona 500 after being involved in accidents during the Duel qualifiers Thursday night.

NASCAR: Can-Am Duel 1
Brad Keselowski (No. 2) wrecks during the Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 15, 2018.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Drivers had two opportunities to get on the track Friday and shakedown their cars in preparation for Sunday’s Daytona 500. For some teams, the pair of practices were of little importance as they knew the capabilities of their cars coming off the Duel qualifying races the night before.

Eleven teams didn’t even turn a lap around Daytona International Speedway in the final session. There was little to be gained and any attention and effort was better focused elsewhere. Not everyone, however, could be so blasé about the day. Eight drivers had to switch to backup cars after a rash of incidents at the Duels that heavily damaged their primaries — that’s one-fifth of the 40-car Daytona 500 field.

For those that had to make the changeover, Friday was about thrashing, hammering and getting a backup ready with the hope it was as good the primary. Aric Almirola, William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, David Gilliland, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Larson are those who are now behind the wheel of a backup car. They will each have to fall to the rear of the starting grid.

“That race pays points now, and it’s frustrating not to get those points there early on,” Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe said Friday. “Then, just the starting position for Sunday. I’m confident in what we have. I mean, obviously we’ve shown really good speed — it’s just frustrating we weren’t able to make it happen.”

Keselowski had entered the 150-mile qualifying races as the betting favorite to win the Daytona 500, a status he earned with a commanding performance in the preliminary. The Clash earlier in the win and his noted reputation for being the best active restrictor-plate racer. And for much of the first Duel he looked every bit ready to fulfil those expectations.

Then a bump from Jamie McMurray sent Keselowski crashing into the outside backstretch wall with two laps remaining. Suddenly the No. 2 Ford that had been so strong was crumpled and in no condition to be raced Sunday. The backup Team Penske pulled out was not the car Keselowski drove to victory in the Clash, but the chassis he won with at Talladega Superspeedway last fall.

Going to a backup would seemingly dampen Keselowski’s quest to win a first Daytona 500. Not so, according to Wolfe, who says Penske doesn’t classify its cars as a “primary” or a “backup.” Instead every car within its fleet is built equally where there is no distinction between them.

“The way we build our cars, they’re all pretty much built the same,” Wolfe said. “I can’t really say that there was one that was put a whole lot more time into than the other. We have confidence that this car will be as capable as what we raced in the Clash and what we had (Thursday) night.

“We’ll take our time today and get everything dialed back in, get the setup where we want it and there’s no reason we still can’t win this thing Sunday.”

Keselowski’s accident was the fourth in Duel 1. And although the second Duel had just a single caution period it did involve four drivers — Chase Elliott and Erik Jones only had minimal damage and were able to continue on, finishing first and third, respectively; Larson and DiBenedetto were not as fortunate.

Seven-time Cup Series champion Johnson made it all of eight laps before a flat tire caused him to spin into Almirola in Duel 1. He is now in a third No. 48 Chevrolet this week.

“I’m devastated for the work and effort that goes into these cars and more on the crew side,” Johnson said. “I know the next car is going to be fast. I know all three cars we have built are really good and strong. I just hate that we have been through three cars down here a lot of different Speedweeks. That part bothers me.”