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Duel races set Daytona 500 field with new style of racing as 'fun'

by | Special to

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The formula is different, but the end result is the same.

At the finish of Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona qualifying races, a group of drivers found themselves with a spot in Sunday's Daytona 500 while others were forced to go home.

But it's not as easy as simply finishing up front to earn a starting position in "The Great American Race." But through a combination of Thursday's effort, qualifying, owners points and provisionals, the likes of Bill Elliott, J.J. Yeley, Joe Nemechek, Michael Waltrip and the biggest underdog story of the day, upstart Brian Keselowski, all made the biggest race of the season.

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Piloting an unsponsored entry fielded by his brother Brad, Keselowski hooked up with his sibling to make his way to a fifth-place finish and in the process lock up a first career start in the 500.

"Oh my God, oh my God," Keselowski screamed on pit road after the race. "I didn't breath for the last 15 laps, I don't want to breath for the next three days but we're in the Daytona 500."

Brad, locked into the race with Penske Racing and the Miller Lite Dodge, was ecstatic about the turn of events that somehow ended with his fledgling race team making one of the most prestigious races in the world.

"What a day," Brad said. "I pushed my brother to the Daytona 500. That's pretty cool. It feels good for him. We really wanted to win, but it was nice to do that with Brian.

"I mean we wanted to come down here and go through this but knew just how difficult a task it would be to get in. But this is what this day and these races are all about, dreams and doing whatever you can to get into the 500. This is a family-owned team in the truest sense, and I can't tell you what an accomplishment this is for all of us."

The independent team finds itself in line for a big payday Sunday, with even last place netting in excess of $250,000. That will go a long way to propelling the organization to bigger and better things.

"That will help for sure," said Brian. "I can finally pay my bills. But that will also help us build this team and maybe get our plans even better for the future."

The underfunded Whitney Motorsports team has a similar story to the Keselowski effort. With veteran Yeley coming on board knowing simply making races is the goal most weekends, just a berth in the 500 is just as good as a win.

"It was a rollercoaster of emotions not knowing what was going to go on, knowing we had to race our way in," said Yeley, the former open wheel star who spent time in the Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup stable. "Once I took the checkered flag in, and rolled across there and realized that we just put this thing in the show, I was beyond myself with excitement."

Waltrip, who put together a deal to race Sunday to commemorate his victory in the 2001 Daytona, was relieved to know he'll take the green flag Sunday.

"We were confident we had a fast car and things worked out with our qualifying speed to know we were pretty safely in the field," said Waltrip.

On the other end of the spectrum were those who came up short in their bid for the 500.

That group included two veterans in Casey Mears and Todd Bodine who suffered through a miserable afternoon and will be forced to simply be spectators Sunday.

Mears, the former Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports driver who landed with Camping World Truck Series team Germain Racing in its Cup effort this season, blew an engine for the second consecutive day.

"This is beyond disappointing," said Mears who may not be able to run the entire Sprint Cup season for Germain because of the lack of sponsorship.

"Just making this race would have been such a shot in the arm for us and to not get in and cost a pair of engines in the process is a pretty tough blow."

Bodine, the defending Truck Series champion who was attempting to run all three NASCAR national series races at Daytona this weekend, was swept up in an accident during the second Duel to end his dream of racing in the Daytona 500.

"It's disappointing yes," said Bodine. "We had a pretty good car that could run in the draft and we were trying to find a partner out there. But just got caught up and clipped there racing through the corner and pretty much just got wrecked."

Aside from the story of who made the 500 and who didn't, Thursday's twin 150s were concrete evidence the two car drafting phenomenon that has been the talk of Speedweeks is definitely here to stay.

Despite NASCAR changing rules impacting engine cooling systems as well as reducing the size of the restrictor plate, the same two-car tandems seen in Saturday's Budweiser Shootout were the order of the day.

Throughout both races drivers doubled up in pairs all through the field, which has proven to be the fastest way around the newly paved Daytona.

"Yeah, they don't compare to anything," said Elliott who has raced on all three of Daytona's pavement surfaces in his career. "I've never experienced anything like what these guys, what you have to do today to make this work.

"You know, when I was here testing, I tried to do this with Jeff Gordon, and it was at the very end of the last day. I couldn't figure it out. We only did it for just a short number of laps. I couldn't help him and he couldn't help me."

While the new style of racing is still taking many drivers time to get used to, others find it fun, including Juan Pablo Montoya.

"It is fun. It is different but it is fun," said Montoya. "I think people are used to restrictor plate racing, it is going to be a very different restrictor plate. It is a hell of a lot of fun restrictor plate racing."

And then there were the drivers who had the best of both worlds -- learning while racing and enjoying it at the same time.

"It was fun and we have a really fast race car and it is still in one piece," said Mark Martin. "We located a number of things we need to work on in different areas. We have a few days to get. Before today we really didn't know what we really needed to zero-in on. I am tickled to death."


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