Daytona Beach, FL (Sports Network) - Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart won Thursday's first Gatorade Duel qualifying race, while Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag for the second qualifier to put both drivers on the second starting row for Sunday's 54th running of the Daytona 500.
Kenseth's Roush Fenway Racing teammates, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, had already secured the front row for NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season, with Edwards winning the pole and Biffle taking the outside pole in last Sunday's time trials at Daytona International Speedway.
Stewart held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Marcos Ambrose before the first 150- mile qualifier ended under caution when Danica Patrick, who is making her Sprint Cup debut this week, crashed on the final lap. Patrick made contact with Aric Almirola and then spun along the backstretch before she slammed hard into the inside retaining wall. She ended up finishing 16th in what was her first Sprint Cup race event.
"It happened real quickly," Patrick said. "I guess you can always imagine when you get down to the end of the race and everyone is on each other's doors really close. It's just kind of what happens at the end of the race. Unfortunately, I was part of it."
Stewart has now won a total of 17 races at Daytona, including three in the qualifiers. But he has yet to win the Daytona 500 in 13 attempts. Stewart will start third in his 14th try.
"We have a great starting spot for the 500," he said. "This [car] has been fast, so we are hoping to be there at the end on Sunday."
Earnhardt Jr. finished second, while Ambrose took the third spot. Jeff Burton and Edwards completed the top-five.
Patrick's team owner, Stewart, said he did not see the crash but noted he was impressed with her performance.
"I thought she did a pretty good job," Stewart said. "I think I'll get a better shot of understanding exactly how her race went when I get to see a replay of the race. The little bit I could see, I thought she did a good job. There wasn't any doubt in my mind she would do that."
Patrick is credited with a 29th starting position in the Daytona 500, but forced to using a back up car for the race, she will have to start from the rear of the field.
"We were just looking to finish [the first qualifier] to be honest," she said. "Unfortunately, that was not the case."
Michael McDowell's sixth-place finish and Robby Gordon's ninth-place run were good enough for them to race their way into the Daytona 500. Gordon started the opening Duel with a tire rub, as he fell back in the field with smoke pluming from the side of his car during the opening lap. He took advantage of an early-race caution by coming onto pit road for repairs.
"I just know this is extremely special, not just for me and my family, but for my whole team, Phil Parsons Racing, a small team," McDowell said. "Six guys back at the shop that worked hard in the off-season to give us a fast car."
Michael Waltrip's streak of Daytona 500 appearances came to an end with an 18th-place finish in the first Duel. Waltrip, who had competed in the last 25 Daytona 500s (1987-2011), wrecked with eight laps to go. Just after pitting for fuel, he lost control and made contact with the outside wall while coming out of turn two.
"I just went the wrong way and lost the car," Waltrip said. "I feel like I let everybody down. I raced my way to the front, and then I let them down. It's just really hard. I don't know what to say; it's just sad. Thankful to my team and Aaron's for giving me the opportunity and hate that I let everybody down."
Waltrip, winner of the Daytona 500 in 2001 and '03, was driving the No.40 Toyota for Hillman Racing. He will share driving duties with Mark Martin in the No.55 car during the remainder of the season. Martin is behind the wheel of the No.55 at Daytona.
In the second qualifier, Kenseth made a daring pass on Biffle for the lead one lap away from the finish. Biffle had led a total of 40 laps before Kenseth squeaked by him as they crossed the start/finish line to complete the second- to-last lap.
Kenseth then beat Regan Smith to the finish line by 0.2 seconds for his and Roush Fenway's first ever win in a Daytona 500 qualifier. Kenseth will start fourth in the 500.
"We just had a big run there," Kenseth said. "Jimmie Johnson gave me a huge push there, and that really worked nice for me the whole race there. Without that push, it would have never gotten done."
Jimmie Johnson, who dealt with overheating issues throughout the 60-lap race, finished third, and Elliott Sadler placed fourth. Biffle crossed the line in fifth.
Earnhardt Jr., Smith, Ambrose, Johnson, Burton and Sadler will start fifth through 10th, respectively, in the Daytona 500.
Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek were the last two drivers to race their way into the Daytona 500. Blaney finished 12th and Nemechek 17th in the second qualifier.
"I definitely had my ups and downs during the race," Nemechek said. "From overheating to having to pit two laps before we were supposed to because we started running out of fuel, just a lot of stuff went on. We're still here."
Four drivers who finished outside the top-35 in last year's owner points had already secured a starting position. David Stremme, Tony Raines, and Trevor Bayne made it in based on their qualifying speeds.
Bayne, the defending Daytona 500 winner, will start 40th after finishing 12th in the opening qualifier.
"Man, I'm really excited about Sunday," he said. "We're getting pumped up about it. We'll see what happens once the race starts and we get going."
Two-time series titleholder Terry Labonte will use the champion's provisional.
Joining Waltrip in failing to qualify for the Daytona 500 were: Bill Elliott, Robert Richardson Jr., Kenny Wallace, Mike Wallace and J.J. Yeley.
Elliott won the Daytona 500 in 1985 and '87, as well as the series championship in '88.
02/23 20:03:54 ET