DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For a qualifying session that locks down only two starting spots in the Daytona 500, there will be drama aplenty today at the big track.
There are 19 cars on the 54-vehicle entry list that have to post fast enough times or score a strong enough finish in Thursday’s twin 150-mile qualifying races to make the field for the 50th running of North America’s premier stock car scrum next weekend.
Since there are seven positions open in the 43-car 500 field, thanks to the top 35 in owner points being guaranteed a starting spot, along with the most recent past Cup Series champion who doesn’t otherwise qualify – there are three in the field – there will be plenty of white knuckles and short breaths in the garage today.
Among the most high-profile names on the so-called go- or go-home list are past champions Kurt Busch (2004), Dale Jarrett (1999) and Bill Elliott (1988). Of the three, Busch is the most likely to post a fast-enough qualifying time in his Penske Racing Dodge to give him a cushion against misfortune in the qualifying races or score a high-enough finish on Thursday to lock him in next Sunday.
If he does either, that could open a spot for Jarrett, who is attempting to qualify for his final 500 in his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, or the semi-retired Elliott, who is in the Wood Brothers Ford.
At stake for the drivers who already are locked in is a shot at the sport’s most prestigious pole position, a second starting spot, the opportunity at picking the two best pit slots and the pole position in their respective qualifying races, usually the best place to avoid mayhem.
The biggest story, aside from speculation about who will post fast laps and who won’t, has been the strength and speed of the Toyotas that enter their sophomore season in a much stronger position than they did as freshmen.
Expectations are that a Toyota driver, especially one of the three strong Joe Gibbs Racing jockeys – Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin – could win the pole.
Toyota had five of the 10 best lap speeds in Saturday morning’s single-car lap practice session.