DAYTONA -- The Gatorade Duels may have set the field for this year's 500, but their biggest role Thursday was turning the tide of public perception for a much-beleaguered sport. A combined 0.019-second margin of victory for both races -- faster than the blink of an eye -- was paired with nail-biting battles for the final spots in the field, a superb opening act for a Great American Race in need of a photo finish.
Who's in the best position to deliver the goods come Sunday? Let's sort through the drama and find the best storylines -- along with a few drivers who stubbed their toe before the season officially begins:
"You've really got to use the tools that NASCAR's giving us to make the cars handle good too, which means the drivers have got to drive the heck out of them,"
Not so fast. A call to stay out on old tires left Johnson in the lead with seven laps left, and he held on with brilliant car control to take a trip to Victory Lane and give Hendrick the top 3 starting spots in this year's 500 -- picking up right where they left off at the end of 2009.
"Thankful to make it back," said Johnson, whose .005-second margin of victory was the second-closest since the advent of electronic scoring for the Duels in 1994. "I felt like I was going to spin out. The push I was getting from (
What's worse for the competition is Johnson's performance remains stuck in their heads, delivering a knockout punch the second the No. 48 appeared vulnerable.
"Rebounding from things that happen is the strength of this team," Knaus said. "It speaks volumes about what we can do."
"It seems every time I'm up front, he's one of the cars I'm battling with," Kahne joked afterwards, claiming the finish was so close, he didn't know who won until being told by his spotter. "I enjoy racing Tony because you know if you beat that guy, you've done something on that day."
Kahne's win was proof the Ford guys did something with their horsepower this offseason. The win came with Ford's new FR9 engine under the hood, leading to rumors they'll let Kahne run it for the 500 (although reliability remains a major concern). But no matter what engine they've got installed, Kahne's confidence has never been this high at a plate track -- leaving him likely to be one of the fastest again on Sunday.
The unsponsored McDowell's run was the most surprising; his car had lost the draft and wasn't a factor until the final caution in Duel No. 1. Charging from the back in the final four laps, he picked the right line at the right time and drafted up to 14th -- good enough to pass
"As soon as that last caution came out, I knew we were going to make the 500," he said, pulling his best
In contrast, a pit road decision by crew chief
"I'm speechless," Papis said. "It was hairy, and I knew it was going to be tough. I feel I'm an underdog every day. But sometimes, being the underdog, it's not a bad feeling."
Rounding out the trio was Bliss, fighting from the back with a backup car in Duel No. 2. Despite not running a lap on his No. 36 Chevy, he fought his way to 13th, good enough to earn underfunded Tommy Baldwin Racing their second straight 500 bid. Most importantly, it gives them a financial boost upwards of $200,000 to start the season, crucial as he joins Papis and McDowell in searching for funding to run all 36 races.
"I don't care we have a front row spot," he said in anger, showing gumption we haven't seen in months as he begged to go fight for the win. "We have a backup car, don't we?"
"This stuff's hard. You don't always hit it," he said of a setup that got a little too aggressive. "We got tight, abused the right front tire." One of NASCAR's classiest veterans -- still looking for his first 500 win -- will now have to fight from the back with a backup car Sunday.
The DNQ ends a streak of 252 straight starts for Mears, one of just a dozen drivers to start every Cup race since 2003.
"This race defines my career," Waltrip said after giving Speed a big hug in the media center. "I figured I would be crying before the day was over -- I just didn't know whether I would be happy or sad. To be able to smile feels rewarding, because we took a part-time car, put a crew together, and qualified fast enough [to make the race]."
And as for whether this is Waltrip's last 500? "I need to prove to myself on Sunday that I need to make the moves to win these races, and I didn't do anything to impress myself," he said, all but admitting this Sunday will be his swan song.