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:
• The Body Shop. With practice far from perfect this week (six teams ran backup cars Thursday, the highest total since the current format began in 2005) garage whispers worried of a possible Demolition Derby in the Duels. What they got instead was clean, exciting racing, with just two cars of a possible 54 knocked out by wrecks in what amounted to a ringing endorsement for NASCAR's new restrictor plate package.
"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," Jeff Gordon said. Among those tools: a larger plate that gives the drivers more speed and quicker throttle response to push other drivers through the pack with ease. It's also been helpful in spreading out the cars and keeping wrecks to isolated incidents, a trend most would welcome in the face of Kyle Busch's on-track flip to the finish last July.
• Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports looked off in the Shootout and practice this week, with Johnson getting the worst of it. An innocent victim of a wreck involving Mike Bliss on Wednesday, the damage was minor but enough to force the No. 48 to a backup car for the Duels. Add in an uncharacteristic mistake by crew chief Chad Knaus (he was late for the NASCAR driver's meeting Thursday morning), and it looked like the Lowe's Chevy would spend their day lowering expectations.
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 (Kyle Busch), when he would get close to the rear bumper of my car, I would start turning the wheel to the right to save it. It stuck."
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."
• Kasey Kahne. Kahne's been my pick all week as a top 500 contender, flexing his muscle in the Shootout with a runner-up finish. But NASCAR's top free agent for 2011 is now No. 1 on everybody's radar after winning a drag race with Tony Stewart.
"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.
• Mike Bliss, Michael McDowell, Max Papis. The Duels give underdogs their time to shine, with two open spots per race going to the highest non-qualified drivers in the 500. It's a chance for teams with guts instead of horsepower to put their best foot forward and race in, which is exactly what this trio did on Thursday.
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 Todd Bodine for a transfer spot on the final lap.
"As soon as that last caution came out, I knew we were going to make the 500," he said, pulling his best Joe Namath impression. "It's unbelievable." How underfunded was McDowell's No. 55? They didn't even have a pit crew until grabbing one on loan from Team Red Bull at the last minute, yet still had the chemistry to pull things off.
In contrast, a pit road decision by crew chief "Bootie" Barker saved the day for Papis, whose GEICO Toyota stayed out on old tires at the end of Duel No. 1. The slow-running car was pushed around like a pinball on the restart, but the driver had just enough to hang on for a spot in the field.
"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.
• HONORABLE MENTIONS: Penske Racing (two cars in the top 5 in Duel No. 2), Regan Smith (top single-car team, fifth in Duel No. 1), Michael Waltrip Racing (three cars in the top 10 for Duel No. 2)
• Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt entered his Duel with nothing to lose -- unless he wrecked, his place on Daytona's front row was assured. But confidence turned to frustration in a heartbeat when some beating and banging with Brian Vickers caused serious damage to three of the four fenders on the No. 88. An extended pit road visit sent the Chevy to the rear and melted Earnhardt's merriment into madness. In an extended, five-minute swearing session that tore Vickers to shreds, he then mixed in a bold statement that giving up was not an option.
"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?"
But Lance McGrew cared, forcing his driver to focus on the big picture and having him hang outside the draft and out of trouble the rest of the day. Finishing well off the lead pack, Junior's in-race performance has been an afterthought during Speedweeks; and if it happens on Sunday, that'll kill the momentum of a front row starting spot to kick off 2010.
• Jeff Burton. All three RCR cars have been a trendy darkhorse pick in Speedweeks, with Kevin Harvick winning the Bud Shootout before dropping to second in Duel No. 1. Clint Bowyer finished behind him in fourth, but a bid to go 3-for-3 blew up courtesy of a flat Goodyear tire that left Burton a little deflated himself.
"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.
• Casey Mears. The clock struck midnight on this Cinderlla story -- much like his NASCAR career to date. The one-time driver for Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing was on the outside looking in last offseason, forced to sign with the underfunded Keyed Up Motorsports when a full-time deal failed to materialize. With money to run just the first six races, the team is desperate for a primary sponsor -- something they might have earned through a starting spot in this year's race. But when Paul Menard nearly lost control in front of Mears' No. 90 with two laps left, momentum was slowed enough for his Chevy to leave him a half-second behind Scott Speed for a spot on the grid. "We were in position," he said, holding in the frustration of a pass below the yellow line from Speed in the final two laps (NASCAR never penalized the infraction). "But the cards didn't fall where they needed to in the end."
The DNQ ends a streak of 252 straight starts for Mears, one of just a dozen drivers to start every Cup race since 2003.
•HONORABLE MENTION:Aric Almirola (missed the race with the same car, the No. 09, that won Talladega last April); Roush Fenway Racing (just one of four cars in the top 10, despite strong initial showings in both races)
•Michael Waltrip. Daytona has been the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for Waltrip, who won his first 500 the same race his car owner passed away. Nine years after Earnhardt's death, Waltrip was fighting for a spot in his final 500 until crashing for the third time this Speedweeks. The wreck left him 25th and initially on the outside looking in on the grid. "After winning a couple of times and losing a dear friend, this is minor," he claimed. "You just have to put it all in perspective and march on." But a publicly nervous Waltrip clearly wanted in this race, and breathed a huge sigh of relief once Speed stole a transfer spot in race No. 2 -- giving him a start on Sunday.
"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.