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CUP: The Low Road And The High Road

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There will be a number of agendas in play in Thursday’s Budweiser Duel, the pair of 150-mile races that help to set the starting grid for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

For pole winner Danica Patrick and No. 2 starter Jeff Gordon, the plans could be mixed. Both want to show the strength of their cars and perhaps win their separate 150s, but their teams also want to protect their obviously potent cars and have them available for Sunday’s Daytona International Speedway feature.

For many of the other drivers in Thursday’s twin fields, the 150-milers will be about earning or improving starting positions in the 500.

Thirteen drivers, based on Sunday qualifying speeds or provisionals, are guaranteed spots in the 500 lineup, but only Patrick and Gordon know exactly where they’ll start – first and second.

The top 15 finishers in each Duel race will fill spots 3-32 in the lineup. Positions 33-36 will go to drivers not already in the lineup with the top four speeds. Drivers not already in the lineup but highest in 2012 owner points will fill spots 37-42, and the final starting position is reserved for a former Sprint Cup champion.

SPEED will broadcast the two Thursday races beginning with NASCAR RaceDay at 1 p.m. ET.

Wednesday’s first practice session again underlined the risky nature of racing too closely with the new Gen-6 cars. Ryan Newman lost control of his Chevrolet and slid in front of Carl Edwards.

Uncertainty limited the number of teams participating in Wednesday’s second practice as most proclaimed themselves satisfied with their cars and unwilling to risk an incident.

“It’s more strategic now than it’s ever been since I’ve been in the sport,” Denny Hamlin said Wednesday. “The cars are driving very similar to ’06 as to how you have to work the draft. It’s definitely going to be a skilled driver’s Daytona 500 to win.

“The biggest thing is there is less downforce in the rear, which is going to make for the back of the cars not sticking as well. Passing is so hard – which is good, so don’t change that – with this short spoiler that people are using every inch of the sidedraft.”

Matt Kenseth, winner of last year’s elongated 500, said his preferred approach is to race near the front.

“Everyone has a different strategy,” he said. “Everybody has a different idea, and that's why you see some people riding in the back and some people trying to wait. I kind of got tired of all that before the start of last year or the end of the year before. I just decided to go race and go race as hard as you can the whole race. Hopefully, you can be in the front, and if there's a wreck, you're not in it."

Mark Martin has been in three wrecks already during Speedweeks but said his planning still includes running and gunning.

“We’re going to race,” Martin said. “We came here to race, and we’re going to race. We may not race in practice on Wednesday, but we’re going to race on Thursday and continue to try to learn. I guess I’ve got 20 laps of drafting so far out of this whole thing and two cars down. We’re still going to try to learn Thursday for the 500. I’m not so much worried about where we start.”

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.