February 19, 2012

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Trevor Bayne will defend his Daytona 500 championship.

Bayne, whose No. 21 Ford didn't have enough owner points to guarantee a starting position in the season-opening race, locked up one of the 43 spots during pole qualifying Sunday. Bayne posted the fastest lap (193.615 mph) among 14 drivers trying to get into The Great American Race, securing a spot along with Tony Raines and David Stremme.

Bayne did it on his 21st birthday, too.

"It's a lot of relief," Bayne said. "We're in the show for good now. We don't have to worry about that or lose some sleep at night."

It could pay off down the road.

Bayne doesn't have a full-time ride in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series. Wood Brothers Racing plans to run him in 14 Cup races this season. He doesn't have a full-time Nationwide Series ride, either. Roush Fenway Racing plans to run him in the first three races of the season, hoping to attract potential sponsors with good results and run more races.

The exposure he should get in NASCAR's premier event could be beneficial.

"Certainly it helps," team owner Jack Roush said. "Trevor is the reigning Daytona 500 champion and we have not managed to put together full sponsorship for either the Cup program or the Nationwide program. But we do have ongoing conversations. And I don't know that there'll be any great improvement in our prospects based on this, but it certainly would have been a downer if we had failed to qualify."

Bayne believed his Daytona 500 victory last February would catapult him into a full-time ride, but little has worked out quite like he expected.

Bayne missed several weeks last season after being diagnosed with a mystery ailment that turned out to be Lyme disease. Bayne feels fine now, good enough to take a mission trip to Kenya in the offseason.

BOWYER BOUNCED: NASCAR officials found Clint Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota was too low in a post-qualifying inspection Sunday. NASCAR disallowed his qualifying time and will force him to start from the back of the pack in his qualifying race Thursday. No additional penalties are expected.

Bowyer's team already is assured of a spot in the Daytona 500 field, based on owner points.

Scott Miller, executive vice president of competition at Michael Waltrip Racing, said he was surprised the car was too low and it wasn't done intentionally.

"It's never good to be in this position right here," Miller said. "But as far as the 150 goes, you're going to be to the front, to the back, in that thing. Our competitiveness and our ability to go win the 150 hasn't changed any."

Bowyer's team was given two chances to go through inspection and didn't make it either time.

"That's what they usually do," Miller said. "They give it a little bit of time and you go again and if it doesn't make it the second time, then this happens, unfortunately."

COMMERCIAL-FREE RACING: The final hour of Fox's telecast of the Daytona 500 will feature racing alongside commercials.

It's the first time the network has used the side-by-side broadcast during the Daytona 500, allowing viewers to catch every lap of the season-opening event.

Fox broadcast side-by-side during several races in the middle of last season.

SHOOTOUT CHANGES: About 12 hours after the closest finish in Budweiser Shootout history, NASCAR tweaked eligibility requirements for the exhibition event.

The sanctioning body said next year's field will include 2012 pole winners in the Sprint Cup Series and past Shootout winners who attempt to qualify for at least one race this season. The new rules mirror those used between 1979 and 2008.

The new rules make 12 drivers eligible for the 2013 Shootout.

Kyle Busch earned his spot by winning Saturday's night race, and Carl Edwards joined him Sunday by claiming the pole for next week's Daytona 500.

Other former Shootout winners locked in include Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart.

The eligibility rules have changed routinely since 2008.

LUG NUTS: Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano were off the pace in qualifying Sunday. Logano was the fastest of the three, qualifying 21st. Busch was 27th and Hamlin was 37th. ... Danica Patrick said she watched video of the lines other drivers were taking around the track to get ready for her qualifying run Sunday. "I turned down onto the banking a little bit quicker because of watching the videos than I did in practice," Patrick said. Patrick was 29th.

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