News & Media

Raw emotion on display for qualifiers, failures

February 23, 2012, Dave Rodman,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Those making 500 were beaming, those outside left to wonder what went wrong

Thursday's Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500 mark one of the most emotional events in the Sprint Cup season.

And the absolute jagged peaks of agony and ecstasy occurred in the first 60-lapper. Michael Waltrip saw a 25-year string of making every Daytona 500 end. Robby Gordon, undeterred by a poor qualifying run, raced into his seventh consecutive 500 as an owner/driver.

"I feel like I let everybody down. It's just really hard. I don't know what to say -- it's just sad."


The second Duel lacked much drama, though the relief of making the $19 million race was obvious for Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek, another owner/driver who accomplished the deed.

Waltrip made a mistake while leaving the pits with less than 10 laps remaining, crashed into the backstretch wall and saw his string of racing in the Great American Race -- an event he won in 2001 and 2003 -- broken.

Even more significant, the 2012 Daytona 500 will be the first Daytona opener since 1972 in which a Waltrip doesn't compete, after Michael's older brother, Darrell began the string.

The ultimate independent, Gordon -- who fell to the back of the 25-car field early in the race with his No. 7 Dodge billowing smoke -- came back to race his way into the big show with some adept work in the draft after a restart with four laps to go.

Waltrip, who owns his own three-car Sprint Cup team, went outside the box to get another Toyota to attempt his 26th Daytona 500, a collaboration between owners Mike Hillman and Joe Falk. The car was plenty fast, as Waltrip had raced his way into the top 10 when it came time to make green flag pit stops with about 15 laps left.

Waltrip pleaded with his spotter to make a deal with either Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jamie McMurray to pit with him to give them drafting partners after their stops. Both relayed that they were attempting to make it all the way on fuel, so Waltrip pitted alone on Lap 52, while running eighth.

Seconds later, his race was over. While attempting to accelerate around the apron of Turns 1 and 2 to rejoin the race Waltrip over-cooked it, lost control and smashed head-on into the outside wall. His stunned reaction on his in-car radio was painful to witness.

"I'm so sorry," Waltrip said, almost sobbing. "I didn't want to get a penalty so I stayed on the bottom. I'm so sorry [pausing] I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say.

"Nothing's ever hurt this bad in a car -- and it ain't my body, it's my brain."

Later, when he'd had a chance to collect his thoughts Waltrip said he had accepted the fact he wouldn't run Sunday's race, doing TV work for SPEED Channel the rest of the weekend. Two Michael Waltrip Racing representatives said they knew nothing about a plan to obtain Gordon's starting spot.

"I just went the wrong way and lost the car," said Waltrip, who blamed himself for not knowing where he could merge up onto the race track. "I feel like I let everybody down. I raced my way to the front and then I let them down. It's just really hard. I don't know what to say -- it's just sad."

For his part, Gordon tried to wrangle a deal while the field rolled around under Waltrip's caution. He told his spotter to tell the spotters for Michael McDowell and defending Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne "we're all three in [to the 500] if they work with us," Gordon said via radio.

His spotter relayed the others' refusal, saying good friends McDowell, who at the time was the leading go-or-go-home driver and Bayne, who was already locked-into the 500 via his qualifying speed had worked together all day and "Bayne doesn't want to leave [McDowell]."

The race restarted and on the first lap, Gordon immediately said "I just don't have enough to keep up." And he was third of the trio, 14th, with Bayne 10th and McDowell 12th. But three laps later, McDowell, driving for a newly-formed Ford team joining owners Phil Parsons, Dusty Whitney and Mike Curb, finished sixth.

It was his best Duel finish, in his third start when a caution caused by a three-car backstretch wreck involving Danica Patrick, Jamie McMurray and Aric Almirola ended the race.

Gordon ripped his way to ninth, while Bayne fell to 12th, which left Gordon screaming into his radio -- almost akin to Waltrip's repeated expressions of sorrow. Only Gordon's spirits were soaring.

"We made the Daytona 500 -- oh, yeah -- we made it," Gordon screamed. "We made it! Hell, yeah! Damn, I'm happy. Thank you, Danica, I love you."

Gordon laughed when he explained the early smoke was the result of a couple oil changes that left oil in the tray under the radiator, which then splashed onto the engine and burned, smoking mightily in the process.

"It was splashing up onto the motor -- I'm like, 'Oh, man, this thing is going to blow up.'" Gordon said. "It kind of played into my hand because when the race started, I didn't know if I should go balls to the wall and make sure we run at the front, take a chance of being in one of those wrecks, or be around for the last dance.

"Every time we come to restrictor plate races, we're usually around for the last dance, and when we are, we got a pretty good shot of running up front. It was good for us, good for our team and it's big to be in the Daytona 500."

"Opportunities like this give me an opportunity to show that I belong here hopefully, and hopefully we'll have a great 500."


All three of McDowell's Daytona 500 attempts have come in cars owned by Parsons. He made the big show in 2010 but missed it last year.

"It's amazing -- I've been here once before and made the race, I've been on the outside looking in, too," McDowell said. "Just know this is extremely special, not just for me and my family, but for my whole team, Phil Parsons Racing -- a small team -- six guys back at the shop that worked hard in the offseason to give us a fast car.

"I don't feel like it's my ability. I feel extremely blessed. I want to thank God first and foremost. It's hard to be one of 43 in this sport. It's been a tough road for me for sure. Opportunities like this give me an opportunity to show that I belong here hopefully, and hopefully we'll have a great 500."

In the first Duel, Terry Labonte pulled off after 12 laps and makes the Daytona 500 via a past champion's provisional spot. Owner/driver David Stremme pulled off but he was locked-in via his qualifying speed.

DNQs from the first race included Waltrip and Mike Wallace, who said his car burned a spark plug wire and had to retire.

In the second Duel, Blaney ran as high as fourth in his Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet and was in the top 10 for most of his race, before finishing 12th. Blaney's team was noteworthy because Baldwin and Stewart-Haas Racing made a preseason deal to transfer the top-35 points Blaney earned in 2011 to give Patrick a guaranteed Daytona 500 start.

"We got too good a team, too good a race car to miss it -- but you never know what might happen," Blaney said. "I was confident we could get in. We've had strong runs here lately in the restrictor plate cars. Baldwin's group always brings good ones."

For the past two years Nemechek was able to time his way into the Daytona 500. The owner/driver who also operates a full-time Nationwide Series team knows what making this race means.

"It definitely is a big deal, making this race," Nemechek said. "There's so much that goes into trying to make it in the Daytona 500, and all the teams down here -- I know from being the driver and the owner, how much it costs to come down here.

"I mean, it's just incredible. If you don't make this race, you never recover from it. It just has you behind all year."

In the second Duel, Tony Raines parked his Front Row Motorsports car early but he was locked-in via his qualifying speed.

DNQs included J.J. Yeley, whose debuting Robinson-Blakeney Racing team broke its engine, Robert Richardson Jr., who made last year's 500, Nemechek's teammate Bill Elliott and Kenny Wallace, who ran in a qualified position early but had to pit to fix a fuel-flow issue.