Daytona Beach, Fla – Setting the field for the Daytona 500 is unlike any of the other 35 races during the course of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. In Daytona 500 qualifying, only the top two cars are locked into their starting spots, as everyone else has to race their way in during Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels at Daytona (7 p.m. ET/FS1/MRN). But, with the recent Charters, 36 to be exact, and the top two speeds among the non-chartered teams being guaranteed to make the race, it’s left the Duels as a ho-hum race.
Why risk crashing your Daytona 500 car when you know you’re automatically going to make the race? After all, starting position on a restrictor plate track hasn’t mattered much in recent years, so why add more work to your team just three days before the season’s biggest race?
Risk vs. Reward.
Well, NASCAR added a wrinkle in the offseason to spice things up in the Duels at Daytona. They’re giving away points now. The kicker? Only the top 10 finishers in each race get points, and they’re awarded from 10 points to the winner, to nine to second, to eight to third, down to one for 10th. Finish 11? Zero points.
When championships are decided by the slimmest of margins, every point matters.
That’s why the Daytona 500 front row qualifiers of Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are willing to risk crashing and starting at the back for Sunday’s race rather than keeping it easy and guaranteeing a front row spot instead. Instead of dropping to the back of the pack and riding around, these two are going for wins and points on Thursday night.
“We’ve got good cars,” Earnhardt said during Wednesday’s Daytona 500 Media Day. “We’ve also got good backups.
“With the points on the line, we’re going to race, try to win, so we’ll get an opportunity to see how the balance is working there.”
Elliott and his crew chief Alan Gustafson said their decisions are the same as their Hendrick teammate, and sees the Duels as a way to work out the kinks and correct potential problems on Thursday night and hope they go wrong then and not when it counts for real on Sunday.
“If you’re going out there and you’re in a pack and your car is not driving well, there’s an opportunity to crash, but I’d much rather find that out early than I would during the Daytona 500,” Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said today. “Obviously even if you have to go to a backup car and we’d have to go to the back or whatever would happen, it’s still a better alternative than that happening during the Daytona 500.”
Both know that starting up front increased their overall odds at winning because 16 of the 58 Daytona 500s (27.6%) have been won from the front row; nine from the pole position and seven from the second-place position. But, since 2001, eight of the 16 winners of the Daytona 500 have come from a starting spot outside of the top 10. In fact, only five drivers have ever won the race with a starting position outside of the top 20, but three of those five have come in the last decade.
So, starting position now doesn’t matter as much as it did prior to the 2001 race.
The two non-charter drivers though, they’re not going for the win on Thursday night at all. In fact, they’re not points racing either. They’re not full-time teams for 2017 as this may be their only Cup shot all year. Points don’t matter to them in the Duels, so they’d rather not risk getting caught up in a crash and taking away all their resources for the Daytona 500. In fact, they don’t even have another car available to go to in the event of a wreck.
“We brought one car,” Sadler said during his availability. “We don’t feel like to push the issue Thursday. We’re just focused on getting through the race Thursday and hope we have a good car for Sunday.”
Thursday night, it’s going to be the most intense action we’ve seen in quite some time during the Duels. 42 cars will race, two will just ride around without a care in the world.