DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Three races down during Speedweeks and nobody has any idea what they’ll see in the Daytona 500.
Kurt Busch felt certain he cemented himself the favorite after winning Thursday’s first 150-mile qualifying race, backing up last weekend’s victory in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout.
Jeff Burton, the winner of the second qualifying race, respectfully disagreed.
The lack of a clear front-runner was the least of NASCAR’s problems, though. Drivers have locked in on a new style of tandem racing that has just about everyone unsure how Sunday’s season-opener will unfold.
All three races so far have been dominated by two-car packs, as drivers figured out the fastest way around the new asphalt at Daytona International Speedway. It’s vastly different from the wild pack racing fans adore at Daytona, and NASCAR has already made a series of rules changes this week in an attempt to separate the cars.
Most drivers seem dazzled by this radical new racing, but fans are a little freaked out at the potential for a boring race.
Burton insisted nothing will be different come Sunday.
“It’s my prediction it will be the same Daytona 500,” he said. “When somebody has a chance to take the Daytona 500 trophy home, you do things that you weren’t going to do 100 laps before that. It’s the same thing every time we come down here.”
So far, it’s hardly been a wild ride.
As soon as the green flag fell for each of Thursday’s qualifying races, the field broke up in two-car packs. It was a repeat of every on-track session since the speedway was paved during the offseason, and drivers determined during two test sessions that hooking up in pairs is the fastest way around the track.
Every minute of practice has been used by drivers trying to figure out who they can work with, how long they can stay hooked up, and how quickly they can swap positions. NASCAR has tried a series of technical adjustments this week to break up the tandems — mostly through changes to the cooling systems that cause cars to overheat if they stay hooked up too long.
Several drivers, Busch included, have mastered the system in a very short time.
“To find the right drafting partners out there, make different things happen, you’re learning every lap,” said Busch, who worked with Regan Smith through most of his qualifying win.
“It’s amazing what partnerships can do out on the racetrack, and when two guys can think the same way without saying a word, things are going to happen for those two guys.”
But others are still trying to figure it out.
“Guys, it don’t compare to anything,” said two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott, who raced his way into the field in the first qualifying race. “I’ve never experienced anything like what you have to do to make it work. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like a bunch of kids playing leapfrog, but they were doing it in pairs.”
Elliott was one of seven drivers to earn a spot in the field during Thursday’s races. He was joined by two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, who is racing in a paint scheme that commemorates the car he drove to victory in the 2001 race — when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap accident. Friday marks the 10-year anniversary.
“I wanted to celebrate Dale’s life,” Waltrip said, relieved at making the race.
Also earning spots in the field were J.J. Yeley, Travis Kvapil, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek and Brian Keselowski, who used help from his little brother, Brad, to earn his first career Sprint Cup start.
The Keselowski hookup was the feel-good story of the day, as the 29-year-old journeyman raced his way into the field driving a 5-year-old car that he prepared with his father. He recruited his uncle to Daytona to help this week, then needed a huge push from Brad, a star for deep-pocketed Penske Racing, to get into NASCAR’s biggest race.
“It still goes to show you that you’ve got a chance no matter what,” Brian Keselowski said. “You find a guy to push you — thank God it was my brother, I don’t know if anybody else would have stuck with me that long. It gives everybody a shot at it and says that the independent guy that can go out and find a racecar, put it together, get a good push, everybody’s got a chance.”
MICHAEL MAKES IT: By finishing third in the second qualifying race Thursday, two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip will start the race for the 25th straight time.
Waltrip has been emotional all week about the 10-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona, a race Waltrip won but couldn’t ever really celebrate.
“Most of the time I’m all right,” Waltrip said. “(Ken) Schrader came over today. We can’t look at each other without crying about it. We were probably the two, other than Dale Jr., drivers that were as closely tied to the events of that day than anyone. We cry a lot.”
YELEY’S RECOVERY: J.J. Yeley made the Daytona 500 field Thursday, taking another step in his return to racing after sustaining a serious neck injury at a short track race in 2009.
“It’s been a long road back,” Yeley said. “I took that nasty flip there in a sprint car, pinched two vertebrae in my neck that I had to have fused in September. It took about eight months to where they were going to clear me and do the rehabilitation to where I was safe getting behind the wheel.”
At times, Yeley has worried he was falling off the NASCAR radar.
“Obviously in this sport, if you’re not in clear view, you can easily get forgotten,” Yeley said. “That’s what I started to feel like. You roll through the garage, people would look at you with a second glance. It was that quick that you could be forgotten.”
SPARK PLUGS: Ford drivers seemed to be able to run longer as the pushing car without overheating problems. “The cooling system works well and I think we’re going to be good,” Carl Edwards said. “It’s going to be an all-day, whose car can last longest, whose engine is the strongest and which drivers can work together the best — I think that’s going to win it, and I feel like we’ve got a good enough team to do that.” … Jeff Gordon damaged his car in the second qualifying race, but the team expects to fix the primary car instead of going to a backup. … Waltrip said NASCAR’s attempts to break up the Daytona drafting tandems with rules changes were having limited success. “I don’t think NASCAR’s rule change with the radiators and stuff accomplished quite what they hoped,” Waltrip said. “Might have got close.”