Dale Jr., Hamlin win qualifiers
They showed up as favorites, endured their share of failures and found a way to stay at the front of the Daytona 500.
There's a reason Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing are the ones to beat in NASCAR. Now, they'll try to beat each other in a super showdown in the biggest race of the year.
"It's going to be the epic battle, and it should be the battle of a lifetime and the century," Gibbs driver Tony Stewart quipped. "There may not be another battle of this proportion for the rest of my life, my career, for the century."
Stewart was of course overplaying the magnitude of Sunday's season-opener. But when Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gibbs driver Denny Hamlin each won a qualifying race Thursday, it set the stage for a fabulous battle.
Six of the top nine starting spots will be filled by drivers from both teams, while Gibbs driver Kyle Busch rolls off from the 24th position. Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson, the two-time defending Cup series champion, will start from the pole.
It makes either team the obvious favorite to win the 50th running of The Great American Race. But Stewart, who finished second to teammate Hamlin in Thursday's second qualifier, said it wasn't that simple.
"I think you can't just limit to those two teams," Stewart said. "But like I said, if it helps us make a better headline for tomorrow, yeah, it's going to be the battle of a lifetime."
That's certainly the way it looked after all four Hendrick cars and two of the three Gibbs cars overcame engine problems that forced them to swap their motors before Thursday's races. Just the day before, Gibbs had four motors traveling up I-95 as four motors headed down to Daytona, and the two truck drivers honked as they passed each other on the busy road.
After years of playing second fiddle to Hendrick as the top team for General Motors -- Hendrick drivers won 18 of 36 races last season -- Gibbs will try to dethrone the powerful team with its new Toyota support. Hamlin drove a Camry to its first win in NASCAR's top series by working with Stewart, then ultimately passed his teammate for the qualifying race victory.
"Very proud," Hamlin said. "I definitely was a ... guy that liked the switch over to Toyota. To give those guys their very first win, and so early into the season, is definitely a proud moment."
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, who is retiring next month, raced his way into his final 500 start. He joined John Andretti, Kenny Wallace and Brian Vickers as drivers who made their way into the race through Thursday's qualifiers.
But two-time Daytona 500 winners Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott joined former open-wheel standouts Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier as drivers who failed to make NASCAR's showcase event.
They'll have to watch from home as the Hendrick and Gibbs teams battle it out, with Earnhardt going off as the favorite. He's 2-for-2 in his Hendrick debut after stealing a win from Stewart in last week's exhibition Budweiser Shootout, then holding on to win the first of Thursday's qualifiers.
Stewart seemed poised to win the second qualifier, but a late race caution set up a two-lap shootout to the finish. During a six-minute red flag he talked strategy with Hamlin, debating how to hold off Gordon, who lurked in third place.
Stewart, who has lost more than his fair share of races because the Hendrick fleet ganged up on him, predicted Gordon would lay off on the re-start and try to chase the Gibbs drivers down.
"That's his normal deal, he won't take off when we do," Stewart said. "Watch your rearview mirror and react accordingly. Do what you gotta do after that, man."
That's exactly what Hamlin did, sticking with Gordon before passing his teammate for the win. It was a big picture victory, and Stewart didn't mind losing out to his teammate.
"Great job, bud," Stewart radioed. "You did right. You did exactly what you needed to do."
Now they'll try to do it again Sunday, where a Hendrick driver -- any of the four -- could win. The team has shown zero dropoff from 2007 and appears even stronger with Earnhardt now in the mix.
But NASCAR's most popular driver -- the 2004 Daytona 500 winner -- wasn't ready to declare himself the favorite.
"I feel like we got a shot, you know what I mean?" Earnhardt said. "Nobody is boastful enough, I don't think, personality-wise, to come in here and claim that. I wouldn't expect anybody to do that.
"But I think we got a great shot."
Earnhardt goes into the 500 searching for his first points-victory in almost two years. After winning two races so far this Speedweeks, he seems poised to pull off a rare sweep.
"It's a Cinderella story," said Wallace, one of two drivers to race their way into the 500 in the first qualifier. "It looks like he's going to sweep Speedweeks if he doesn't break."
The first qualifying race was a showdown between Red Bull Racing teammates Brian Vickers and AJ Allmendinger, who both had to race their way into the 500 field. Vickers made it in with a last-lap pass of Joe Nemechek to finish 11th and secure his spot in the field.
It was a comeback for Vickers, who was spun by Boris Said three laps into the race and had to make an unscheduled pit stop for a flat tire. Vickers, a one-time star at Hendrick Motorsports, struggled horribly through his first season with Red Bull when the team struggled to make races.
"Oh, it's like I won the race," Vickers said. "I think the last time I felt this good was when I won a race (at Talladega in 2006). I mean, the 50th running of the Daytona 500 is special, but just to start the year off right."
Allmendinger failed to make the 500, finishing 13th in the qualifier. He, too, struggled to make races last season and was disappointed in not being able to put both Red Bull cars in the field.
"I mean, unfortunately, everybody at Red Bull, they deserve to have two cars in," Allmendinger said. "It's good that Brian got in, at least, (for) the guys back in the shop but my guys deserve better than that. Just never had the car right."
Kurt Busch lost power in his Dodge about 10 laps into the race, and the failure had a huge effect on several drivers. Because the 2004 series champion gave his points earned from last season to new teammate Sam Hornish Jr. -- a move that ensures Hornish a spot in the first five races of the season, Busch will make the Daytona 500 under the past champion's provisional.
"We got some burned-up wires under the dash, so that's not good," Busch said. "We've got the champion's provisional to fall back on, and so we're not too worried about it."
But it created a huge worry for Jarrett, who had hoped the provisional still would be available for him just in case he failed to race his way into the field in the second qualifying race. It didn't matter, though, when Jarrett finished ninth in his qualifier.
"Certainly, I wanted to be a part of the 50th running of the Daytona 500," Jarrett said. "Now we've got the hard part over with. We'll go to work on this baby and see if we can tune it up a little bit and see what we can do on Sunday."