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 had cemented himself as 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 about 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 rule changes this week in an attempt to separate the cars.
Most drivers seem dazzled by this radical new racing, but fans are a little uneasy at the potential for a boring race.
Burton insisted nothing will be different on 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.
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.
“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.
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 Sprint Cup start.
The Keselowski hookup was the feel-good story of the day, as the journeyman raced his way into the field driving a 5-year-old car that he prepared with his father.
WHERE: Daytona International Speedway (tri-oval, 2.5 miles), Daytona Beach, Fla.
TV: Ch. 13, 9 a.m. Sunday. Race begins at 10 a.m.
WASHINGTON DRIVERS: Kasey Kahne of Enumclaw will start ninth, and Greg Biffle of Vancouver will start 26th. Derrike Cope of Spanaway failed to qualify Thursday.