CUP: Waltrip Among Drivers Facing Nerve-Wracking Duel

For the last 25 years, Michael Waltrip has qualified for the Daytona 500.

He will learn today whether that streak will extend to 26 years.

Waltrip is one of 10 drivers who enter the Gatorade Duels today not knowing if he will get to race in the Daytona 500. He will try to rely on recent and past experience to race his way into the sport’s biggest race.

With 35 spots guaranteed to the top teams from 2011, the top two non-guaranteed drivers in each of the 60-lap races today get into the Daytona 500. The next three Daytona 500 spots are based on qualifying speed from last Sunday. The final spot goes to a past champion and if there’s no past champion, then another driver gets in based on speed.

For Waltrip, he needs one of those two transfer spots or a whole lot of help to make the Daytona 500.

“It’s probably going to come down to Thursday, last lap,” said Waltrip, driving a former Hendrick Motorsports car converted to a Toyota and fielded by team owner Mike Hillman Sr. “For some reason, things always seem to be a little dramatic here for me.”

He has been in this position before, from racing his way in to having to sit through the second qualifying race needing help – and getting it.

“I’ve experienced every emotion except missing it and I don’t want to experience that,” Waltrip said.

While those experiences from past seasons should help him, it might be the Budweiser Shootout experience from Saturday night that helps him more.

Granted, he lasted only a little more than eight laps in that non-points race, but he learned enough.

“I was in the middle of it … and thought, ‘We have only run 10 laps so nobody is going to wreck each other,’” Waltrip said. “They did. I guess you just have to sort of survive first. I think depending on what happens, maybe we won’t be as eager to get in the middle of it all on Thursday and just ride for a while. Just lay back like Tony [Stewart] did. He made it work out all right [by winning].”

Who else needs help on Thursday?

Among drivers who entered the weekend without top-35 owners points from 2011, Trevor Bayne, Tony Raines and David Stremme know they can fall back on their qualifying speed from Sunday to make the race.

Terry Labonte knows he’s in with a past champion provisional if he needs it. Fifth overall among the non-guaranteed drivers, Labonte could also race his way in or get in based on speed. If so, then Elliott would get a past champion’s provisional.

With the possibility that Bayne, Raines, Stremme and Labonte might need to fall back on their qualifying speeds, three drivers – Kenny Wallace, Dave Blaney and Waltrip – are on the bubble. Their speeds might get hem in but the only way to guarantee a spot in the Daytona 500 is by racing their way in Thursday.

Wallace has the best chance to get in based on his qualifying speed, while Blaney and Waltrip would need considerable help.

Drivers who must race their way in are Joe Nemechek, Michael McDowell, Mike Wallace, Robert Richardson Jr., Robby Gordon and JJ Yeley. • Trevor Bayne, Tony Raines, David Stremme earn starting spots in Daytona 500