Daytona 500 pole day qualifying | Duel 1 lineup | Duel 2 lineup
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - There wasn't much noise from the sparse crowd on hand for Sunday's Daytona 500 qualifying session.
But there was a very audible roar from those who were in the grandstands when Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned the fastest lap of time trials to win the pole for the 53rd running of "The Great American Race."
Earnhardt will start his 400th career Sprint Cup Series race from the number one spot next Sunday when he leads the field to green in the 500.
He'll be flanked by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon as the front row duo were the only two drivers to lock themselves into next week's race.
The rest of the 43-cars will be decided by a mixture of qualifying speeds, finishing positions in Thursday's Gatorade Duel qualifying races, the Top 35 owners' points from last season and other provisionals.
And while some drivers who took part in Sunday's session know they will be in the big race to start the season, others will have four more sleepless nights until the checkered flags fly in Thursday's twin 150s.
Bill Elliott, Joe Nemechek , Travis Kvapil and Terry Labonte were the quartet that will be able to celebrate after Sunday's runs, all earning a spot in Sunday's race. However where they take the green flag will be determined by their finish in one of Thursday's twin 150s.
"This takes a lot of pressure off to say the least," said Nemechek, who put together a deal at the last minute to bring his team down to Daytona along with another car for last year's Rookie of the Year Kevin Conway . "We've been working pretty hard nearly day and night to get both cars prepared to be down here and this is very rewarding to know our little group has already earned a spot in the biggest race of the year. Pretty cool."
Only four other spots will be up for grabs on Thursday, which has been watered down in recent years thanks to NASCAR's Top 35 rule of guaranteeing positions in the first five races of a new year based on LAST season's owner points.
With most of the Daytona 500 line-up now set, the mystique of the twin-150s has evaporated and one of the best days in sports is nowhere near the same.
Back in the day the twins were the ultimate "go or go home" race with drivers furiously trying to find a way to finish inside the first fifteen to earn a way into Sunday's big show. There were still provisionals available based on point standings as well as qualifying speeds dictating other starting spots. But racing your way into the 500 WAS the show and why on a Thursday afternoon you'd see more than 100,000 fans jam the grandstands in Daytona.
Don't expect any fix to that situation anytime soon as the Top 35 rule appears set in stone for the near future.
NASCAR's bigger issue is finding a way to slow down the Sprint Cup cars that rocketed around Daytona in excess of 206 mph in Saturday's Budweiser Shootout and figuring out what to make of the two-car drafting phenomenon that was still the talk around the garage on Sunday.
The expectation is that NASCAR will most likely mandate a smaller restrictor plate to bring down speeds - even by five or six miles per hour seems to put the sanctioning body into more of a comfort level. And a tweaking of the cooling systems to force drivers from staying on the rear bumper for an extended period of drafting for fear of overheating is rumored to be the course of action on the tandem racing.
As usual, things change on a nearly daily basis during "Speedweeks" and I'm expecting that to continue as we countdown to next Sunday's 53rd Daytona 500.
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