For most drivers, the 2012 Gatorade Duel event wasn’t about racing for the glory.
Thursday’s 150-mile qualifying races provided two perfect test sessions for teams to prepare for the Daytona 500.
For some drivers, the experiments were successful. Tony Stewart continued his winning ways with his third career Duel victory. Fellow Sprint Cup champion Matt Kenseth earned his first Duel win — and the first for Roush Fenway Racing — in the second contest with record time of 46:23.
With NASCAR’s new restrictor plate package, some competitors battled through fuel mileage, overheating and handling issues as they searched for that sweet spot between pushing and drafting.
But perhaps the greatest lesson gleaned from the first Duel to the second was to take care of the equipment. Certainly, the Budweiser Shootout was a preview for possible disasters. And while the first Duel featured three mishaps, the second race went off without incident.
“I think a lot of people were feeling different things out,” Kenseth said. “Even the guys that weren't in the race that got to watch on TV learned a lot. When you get on somebody's left rear, you're going to spin them out.”
The fireworks began on Lap 9 when Michael McDowell made contact with David Gilliland. That altercation triggered an accordion wreck as Gilliland’s No. 38 Ford shot up into the No. 42 of Juan Pablo Montoya, collecting Paul Menard, too.
Michael Waltrip earned the heartbreak award after losing control of his machine in Turn 2 on Lap 52 and ended his shot of running in his 26th Daytona 500.
Although Stewart picked up at Daytona International Speedway where he left off in 2011 — in Victory Lane — his protégé Danica Patrick wasn’t as lucky. On the final lap of the first Duel, Aric Almirola slid into Patrick's car and shot the No. 10 Chevrolet nose-first into the wall to bring out the third and final caution.
“The good thing is she’s still in the 500,” Stewart said.
Stewart led 21 of 60 laps in the first Gatorade Duel on the way to his 17th Daytona victory. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second, followed by Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards. Edwards, the Daytona 500 polesitter, remained in conservation mode throughout most of the race in an effort to protect the No. 99 Ford. Edwards described the event as “crazy,” but the “fun” factor was evident.
“We went for it there at the end,” Edwards said. “We got behind Burton and we were coming down the back straight. If that caution didn't come out; I don't know what it looked like on TV, but it felt like we were going to be leading off of four. I was having fun.
“I am excited for the race. It is going to be a good race. I am glad we got through all this and we are starting on the pole. I got a ton of experience today, and we are accomplishing our goals."
Although Edwards was the top Ford in the first Duel, Kenseth and Greg Biffle dominated the second race. Biffle led 39 circuits — including the last 37 laps. But Biffle disobeyed a directive from crew chief Matt Puccia to remain on the yellow line and protect the bottom of the track. Coming to the white flag, Biffle shot up to the high-side entering the tri-oval, and that opened the lane for Kenseth.
“I should have stayed on the bottom,” Biffle said remorsefully. “I learned something for the 500 anyway.”
Kenseth learned quite a bit from drafting with Jimmie Johnson. However, he might not have that luxury Sunday when all the Hendrick Motorsports teammates are on the track. Still, Kenseth hopes that the Daytona 500 is more reflective of the second Duel and not the first.
“There was a little bit of handling that came into play,” Kenseth said. “It was a lot harder to get from the back to the front than I expected.
“There are going to be more cars out there obviously in the 500. There will be a bigger hole. The rear cars will have bigger runs and going faster, and that will create more passing. I think you're going to kind of see a mixture. Hopefully we see more of what we saw today, at least from my standpoint.”
Tony Stewart has exhibited plenty of muscle in Speedweeks.
The Shootout runner-up and winner of Thursday’s first duel was certainly checking out the competition. However, Smoke feels that the No. 14 Chevrolet’s show of strength will also attract other solid cars to partner with in Sunday’s Great American Race.
“We showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed,” Stewart said. “That's a really strong point, just like Trevor Bayne showed last year he had a strong car, so people wanted to go with him. Hopefully that will work for us on Sunday, too.”
Stewart has already captured the attention of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt, who witnessed the power of the No. 14 Chevrolet firsthand, said Stewart “always knows how to get up” to the front of the pack.
Certainly, given the pair’s propensity to draft in the past, Earnhardt is well aware of Stewart’s talent on restrictor plate tracks.
“You are going to have to beat him to win these things,” Earnhardt said. “He is one of the guys that is always going to be there.”
LET THE LOBBYING BEGIN
The Earnhardt Childress Racing engines seemed to battle the most with overheating during the duels.
While Jeff Burton (fourth), Kevin Harvick (sixth) and Jamie McMurray (10th) all finished in the top 10 in the first duel and Regan Smith (second) and Elliott Sadler (fourth) were both competitive in the second qualifier, the ECR-powered drivers were the most vocal Thursday.
“The temperatures are just way too hot; you can’t really race,” Harvick said. “Everybody is just trying to position themselves for the last lap. The grills are so tight that at 240 degrees in the pack you are just sitting there and you can’t really make a move.
“That is why everybody was so content to stay single-file. I didn’t really know what to do there at the end.”
McMurray, who won the 2010 Daytona 500, concurred with Harvick. While he prefers this style of racing to the tandem drafting, McMurray would like to see NASCAR expand the grille openings from the current 2.5 inches by 20 inches.
“I’m hoping NASCAR will open up the grille,” McMurray said. “It was a little hard to race because you got too hot. If you were trying to push cars early on, it just got too hot.
“Once you pop that PRV (pressure relief value) off, it is over. You can’t push the rest of the day. So I popped mine off a little too early in the race.”
When Donnie Allison was asked about the current style of restrictor plate racing igniting so many accidents, the veteran replied, “Cars don’t wreck; people do.”