Unknowns persist entering Duels
February 21, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers are anxious to learn how the new Generation-6 car will react when a full field of competitors are on the track at the same time.
RELATED: Duel lineups
Most say they should have a much better idea following the Daytona Duels, a pair of 150-mile qualifying races scheduled to begin just after 2 p.m. Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.
There’s been precious little pack racing thus far as the season-opening Daytona 500 draws closer, and when packs have formed, trouble hasn’t been far behind.
Incidents during practice last week and in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited weren’t unexpected -- multicar crashes often seem to be the rule rather than the exception here -- but suggests that much about the new car remains unknown.
"To me, the Duels are the most important part of the week."
-- Matt Kenseth
“Handling was just starting to be an issue with cars around us in the Unlimited race before we crashed,” said Denny Hamlin, one of nine drivers involved in the Lap 14 incident. “I was looking forward to seeing how our car was going to handle. … The Duel will give us a better shot to figure out some stuff with the chassis.”
The expectation, he said, is that the two qualifying races will be a bit less chaotic. “These are our (Daytona) 500 cars,” he said, “the ones that are our best in the shop. They are not disposable like the … cars from Saturday night.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had the seventh fastest lap during qualifying, putting him fourth in the lineup of the opening Duel. Danica Patrick locked down the pole for the 500 and will start on the pole in the opening qualifier. Jeff Gordon, second fastest, will lead the field to green in the second qualifier.
A pair of former Daytona 500 winners will line up alongside Patrick and Gordon, with 2011 winner Trevor Bayne also starting on the front row in the first race and Ryan Newman (2008) scheduled to start in the No. 2 spot in the day’s final qualifier.
Only Patrick and Gordon are guaranteed starting spots for the 500 by virtue of their qualifying efforts. The next 30 positions in the field will be determined by the finishing order of Thursday’s two races (15 from each race), followed by the four fastest cars from qualifying that have not already earned a starting spot.
Six more positions, based on 2012 owner points, are available for those who failed to qualify by virtue of their finishing position in the Duel or their qualifying speed.
A final position is available for the most recent eligible past Cup champions, should it be needed. If not, it will be assigned to the next highest car in owner points that is not already in the field.
Gordon may be guaranteed a starting spot for the 500, but he said he’s still unsure of just how much knowledge his Hendrick Motorsports team has gained thus far. Like Hamlin, the four-time Cup champion exited The Sprint Unlimited early after getting caught up in the big crash.
“I don’t really feel like we learned much,” Gordon said of his short night’s work. “There were a couple of laps where I was back in traffic and feeling the car move around and seeing some things that were happening handling-wise.
“I think that the conditions are going to be so much different. There is not going to be a night race and it’s going to be warmer. I think the handling is going to be a bit more of a factor for Thursday and for Sunday.”
Success on Thursday hasn’t often translated into success on Sunday. Since the qualifying race was lengthened from 125 miles to 150 in 2005, Matt Kenseth has been the only driver to sweep both a qualifying race as well as the Daytona 500, managing the feat last season.
Gordon and Tony Stewart have been most successful under the 150-mile format, as each has scored three wins.
“To me, the Duels are the most important part of the week,” Kenseth said. “I always like to go out there and race hard, try to make some moves, try to run with some people and maybe gain their trust if you have a fast car -- that kind of stuff. Kind of set up a lot of different things for Sunday. That's better than any test you can do. …
“I like to be in race situations the whole time. If something happens, it happens. (You) try to be as prepared as you can for the 500."
Back on the track for practice Feb. 20, drivers were still searching for the elusive thin line that resides between speed and stability. Smaller packs formed from time to time, but not without incident.
“I don’t know if it was the air off of Carl’s (Edwards) car or what,” Newman said after he spun during Wednesday’s opening practice. “My car just came around.
“It was unfortunate … but that is why we had practice. That was my first experience, but I guess my car just got light in the back going into the corner.”
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