A great prelude to the 500
Daytona Duels blog
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
All times Eastern
Wow! What a preliminary to the Daytona 500.
And what a lot of great stories.
Jeff Gordon won the first of Thursday's qualifying races for his first trip to Victory Lane in 40 races. Kyle Busch captured the second, holding off hard-charging Mark Martin, who was already locked into the outside pole for Sunday's "Great American Race."
Then there are all the subplots. Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs raced their way into the big one with teams that were formed less than two months ago. Riggs, driving for crew chief/owner Tommy Baldwin, finished eighth in the first race. Mayfield, driving for his own team of about 20, finished ninth in the second.
Then there was AJ Allmendinger, who got the No. 44 of Richard Petty Motorsports into the 500 with a 10th-place finish in the second race.
And there was 18-year-old Joey Logano, who finished fourth in the first qualifier to quiet critics who thought he lacked experience to be competitive on a superspeedway.
The tears of joy, particularly from those such as Mayfield and Riggs, who'd wondered whether they'd have a ride this season, made one forget for a moment how tough economic times have been on the sport.
"It's a very unbelievable thing," Mayfield said. "I wanted to retire on my own, not just be pushed to the side."
Why is the racing all of a sudden so great? Could it be the new car that drivers and crew chiefs have ripped for more than a year?
"I just think this car was designed and built for Daytona and Talladega," Gordon said. "It's really built well. Sometimes we don't really care for it a lot at some of the other tracks, but it makes up for it, in my opinion, at Daytona."
And he expects more of the same Sunday.
"I'm hoping the fans enjoyed it," Gordon said, "because it was fun from where I was sitting -- not just because I went to Victory Lane."
Best line of the day: "We're going to need another car, Tony."
Maybe they need to call one Tony and one Tony Jr. to differentiate for those following on scanners. No, that would be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief, Tony Eury Jr.
Some sounds at Daytona Beach you can't help but recognize. One is the ocean crashing against the shore outside the Ocean Deck. Another is roar of jet engines as they make flyovers before every race.
The other is the explosion of the crowd when Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes the lead.
It didn't take long for that familiar noise to occur Thursday, as NASCAR's most popular driver took the lead on the first lap of the second qualifying race.
He's right. The hype following Gordon when he came into the sport in 1993 was nothing like what the teenage phenom has. It's arguably the most the sport has seen.
It's definitely more than Juan Pablo Montoya had two years ago when he drew worldwide attention, at least according to one of his former public relations handlers, who has been working with Logano.
Weird sight of the day: Tony Stewart sitting in the postrace interview between Joey Logano, the 18-year-old who replaced him in the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, and Scott Riggs, the driver he knocked out of a ride as the new co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.
Logano was there as the top-finishing rookie in fourth place. Stewart was there as the second-place driver and one of two who made the transfer spot into the 500, although he technically was in already with the first past champion's provisional.
Riggs was there because he made the other transfer spot with an eighth-place finish, putting the newly formed team of Tommy Baldwin Racing into the show.
For the record, it wasn't surreal for Stewart to see the Home Depot car he drove the past 10 seasons in his rearview mirror. "It really wasn't as weird as you would think it would be," Stewart said.
Legend A.J. Foyt sat on Stewart's pit box, but he wasn't given a headset that would allow him to communicate with the two-time Cup champion.
"Oh, God, no," Stewart said. "Can you imagine having to sit there and driving with him yelling at you all day long?"
Afterward, Stewart ran into his childhood hero on the way to the media center.
"He gave me an A-minus on the day," Stewart said.
In first place and a short distance from the checkered flag, a sight he hadn't seen since the 32nd event of the 2007 Sprint Cup season, Jeff Gordon knew victory was his.
"We've got it!" he yelled over his car radio after taking the first of Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races. "Awesome job! That's the way to start out 2009, baby!"
Although it was a nonpoints victory, Gordon will take it. The driver with four championships and 81 career wins hadn't seen Victory Lane of any kind in 40 races.
"I hope I'm here a lot more than this," said Gordon, holding his daughter, Ella, who seemed more interested in the television microphone than her daddy's win.
Former crew chief Ray Evernham, who led Gordon to three of his titles, believes there will be more visits to Victory Lane for the No. 24. He noted two weeks ago that the 37-year-old driver had his swagger back.
"The way it looks, the way it feels, the whole team has the same attitude," Gordon said. "I'm really excited about the Daytona 500."
"It feels absolutely awesome," Riggs said. "It feels like we won the race."
Bill Elliott wasn't devastated when his car stalled in high gear and spun out under caution 26 laps into the first qualifying race. Neither was crew chief David Hyder.
"Oh, hell with that," Hyder told Elliott as he went into his hauler. "We're going to the race with that."
A year ago, a gear problem in the qualifier kept Elliott from making the race. He was guaranteed a spot in this year's 500 after posting the fifth-best qualifying speed Sunday.
"We'll be all right," said Elliott, who was moving up through the field in the Wood Brothers' No. 21 before the incident.
Hyder has seen tougher times here. In 2007, he was escorted from the track by NASCAR officials and suspended indefinitely after officials found a foreign substance in Michael Waltrip's engine.
"Any time I come to this place, it's hard," said Hyder, who always has maintained his innocence in that incident.
Robby Gordon is batting 1.000 in wrecks caused. He started the first caution in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, then started the first on Thursday when he bumped Kurt Busch coming to the tri-oval.
Fortunately for Busch, he only spun out and was able to remain on the lead lap.
I've had it with those Aflac squeaky ducks they keep passing out at the track to promote Carl Edwards' car. I told Edwards as much, too. He seemed to understand when I explained one got into the hands of my puppy, Ernie, and he'd squeezed enough Aflac quacks out of it that it's more nerve-wracking than listening to 43 cars go around in circles for four consecutive hours.
Apparently, Edwards has heard the complaint before.
He asked why I simply didn't take the duck away. I confessed the only reason was that Ernie has a broken leg after getting hit by a car on Friday. Dang duck just seems to lift his mood.
Chip Ganassi obviously isn't as superstitious as partner Felix Sabates.
Sabates, as promised, is donning the same pink shirt he wore on Sunday when Martin Truex Jr. put the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates car on the pole of the Daytona 500.
Ganassi, who also wore a pink shirt on Sunday, did not.
Tough economic times have brought out some interesting car sponsors. When's the last time -- or first time -- you saw Biker Design on the hood? Or Romeo Guest Construction? Or Red Bank Outfitters?
Mark Martin is anxious. More anxious than any 50-year-old should be entering the 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.
He was one of the first drivers at the track. He was the first one to ask a question in the drivers meeting, getting a clarification of the restart rules that have been changed from last season.
He'll be first when the second qualifier begins, having posted the second-fastest speed during Sunday's qualifying that determines the front row for the Daytona 500.
"There's nothing he does that makes me say, 'Damn, he's old,'" said Alan Gustafson, Martin's 33-year-old crew chief. Gustafson is more antsy than anxious. Because Martin wasn't allowed to drive in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, this will their first race together.
"Kyle Busch was in the same situation when we ran here a few years ago," he said. "I didn't realize then what a huge disadvantage that was. Not having that track time is big."
"Quick, somebody throw a water bottle," he said.
Good memory. The fan was making fun of a 2005 qualifying race when Harvick took out leader Jimmie Johnson and caused a wreck that also eliminated Nemechek.
Nemechek, none too pleased, hurled a water bottle at Harvick as they exited the infield care center.
"Kevin Harvick is driving like an idiot, and he cost a bunch of people race cars," Nemechek had said at the time. "They need to make his [butt] pay for it."
NASCAR will implement single-file restarts for the final 20 laps (instead of the final 10) in all three series during the 2009 season, officials said Thursday.
The rule was changed to give lead-lap drivers a better chance to go for the victory instead of having to battle lapped traffic on the inside as they do on double-file restarts.
NASCAR also is evaluating the 50-foot distance announced at the Budweiser Shootout as the new standard for the leader to restart an event. It could change -- larger or smaller -- from track to track based on driver input, officials said.
Under the new rule, the leader has between the double-red line 50 feet from the start-finish line and single-red line at the start-finish line to start the race. Otherwise, the starter on the flag stand will start the field.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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