DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Despite everybody's preseason optimism, it has become clear at Speedweeks that Hendrick Motorsports is still the class of the field.
Jimmie Johnson gambled on pit strategy late, staying out while the rest of the field opted for fresh tires, and went on to lead the final seven laps before edging out Kevin Harvick to win the first of two Gatorade Duel qualifying races by .005 of a second -- the second-closest margin of victory in the event since the introduction of electronic scoring.
With the exception of the Budweiser Shootout, which Harvick won handily, Johnson's win extended Team Hendrick's dominance.
Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. secured the front row for the Daytona 500 during time trials Saturday. Then Johnson, after wrecking during practice on Wednesday, won his Duel to secure the third starting spot for the Great American Race.
"Just shows we don't build bad race cars," four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Johnson said. "The Shootout car was very fast today. The call that Chad (Knaus) made to stay out on tires really paid off.
"It wasn't easy to drive the car that loose. Those guys on new tire behind me had a lot of speed and a lot of energy; they pushed me. The Lowe's Chevrolet did it, man."
Mark Martin started from pole position, led 28 laps but dropped out of the pack on the final lap not wanting to take a chance with his car. He was scored 21st. Martin told crew chief Alan Gustafson following the race that the handling was where it needed to be on the car, but Harvick's ride looked a little bit better.
"I made a couple of bad choices on lanes and got shuffled back," Martin said. "It got a little bad there those last four laps, and I was in the middle of it. The only way I wouldn't start on the pole of the Daytona 500 was to wad it up. So I conceded there with a lap and a half to go, and I was too far back to win it.
"But our car handled good. It is fast."
Jeff Gordon salvaged a 10th-place finish after slamming into the back of Regan Smith during a three-car melee that also included Michael Waltrip. However, the team has elected to bring out a backup car for Sunday's 500.
"We had some teammates kind of gang up on us, which is pretty typical," said Gordon, who will roll off 21st. "We had a real good effort. We made some big gains from practice and got ourselves in position but unfortunately got shuffled back there. We were slowly but surely trying to make our way through. We got a little bit loose that second half of the race and made an adjustment and freed the car up a little too much.
Earnhardt Jr. started from the pole and led the first five laps of the second Duel. He remained among the top five for the first 20 laps until David Gilliland brought out the caution on Lap 25. Earnhardt sustained damage on three sides of his car from extensive slam-drafting on the track, which led to an extended pit stop for repairs. The team contemplated parking the car early, however, Earnhardt insisted on remaining on the track but finished 21st.
Regardless, Hendrick equipment has picked up where it left off in 2009 -- a scary proposition for the competition.
"We think it is going to be good when the money is on the line on Sunday," Earnhardt said. "We should be prepared."
Here's to the underdogs
Earning a coveted starting spot in the Daytona 500 is painstaking for those drivers outside the top 35 in owner points.
Although Bill Elliott, Bobby Labonte, Scott Speed and Joe Nemechek were locked into the field for the Great American Race based on their qualifying times, Max Papis, Michael McDowell, Mike Bliss and Michael Waltrip found themselves in precarious positions before Thursday's Duels.
Papis and McDowell raced their way into the 500 in the first Duel. Waltrip's race ended 53 laps into the first Duel, but he still secured a starting spot in the Daytona 500.
However, the wait was excruciating.
The cars -- and stars -- had to line up perfectly in the second race for Waltrip to qualify for what could be his last 500. With Speed racing into the 500 with his 14th-place finish, Waltrip was locked into the field on time.
For the popular veteran and two-time winner of the event, it was well worth the wait.
"I figured when I woke up this morning I'd be crying before the day was over," Waltrip said. "I just didn't know if it would be because I was happy or because I was sad. And then I damn sure didn't know it would be both within an hour of each other."
Waltrip used a part-time car from his stable. His longtime buddy and crew chief Bobby Kennedy pulled a crew together at the last minute. And while Waltrip knows he doesn't have a car that can compete against the class of the field, that doesn't diminish the fact he made the show. After all, it is Daytona. In 46 starts on the 2.5-miler, Waltrip has three of his four career wins.
"For some reason, this place defines my career," Waltrip said. "It certainly is my first memories of NASCAR racing, coming here as a kid."
Papis and McDowell, two of the drivers Waltrip competed against for a spot, raced in cars prepared by Michael Waltrip Racing.
Like Waltrip, Papis' experiences at Daytona contributed to an already emotional day.
"This track for me, it's really special," Papis said. "I came over here in '96. It was my first ever race in America, racing the Rolex 24 Hour. A lot of satisfaction for me in that race. For me, this being the first 500 is just a dream coming true.
Crew chief Bootie Barker's decision to keep Papis on the racetrack during the final caution in the first Duel as the leaders pitted set him up in second-place for the restart with three laps to race. Although Papis was unable to hang on and dropped to 15th in the final laps, it enabled him to transfer into the 500.
"It came to great teamwork," Papis said. "Bootie left me up there in front. It was hairy. Sliding around, everybody pushing me, kind of fell a little bit in the back. He told me that's the black car (the No. 27) you need to pass. That's it. Kept it wide open as hard as I could and slid around and made it happen."
Papis, 40, attempted to qualify for 23 races last season and made 15. His best finish was eighth at Watkins Glen.
After spending the majority of his career in open-wheel racing, Papis had difficulty finding the word to describe what Thursday's experience meant to him.
"Those guys out there, they are the best of the best in the world," Papis said. "When you can compete with them, when you have someone like Mark Martin coming to you and saying, 'I'm really happy that you made the show,' it means the world for me.
"I've been able to race in Formula One, I've been lucky to drive a Champ Car, IndyCar, whatever, but these guys, now I know when they were complaining before, why all the American drivers they're not in open���������wheel racing? Because they're over here. My program is staying here until I get too old and you guys don't want to hear me anymore. That's what I'm working on. I don't want to be called any more the 'Road Course Racer.' I want to be called 'Mad Max, the NASCAR Racer.'"