By Bruce Martin
February 23, 2012

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- By most standards, Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona qualifying races were mundane considering the first 60-lap contest had just two cautions and the second race was flag-to-flag without interruption. But considering it was NASCAR rookie Danica Patrick that drove her Chevrolet into the wall on the final lap of the first qualifying race, she once again dominated the attention at Daytona.

There were plenty of winners and a few losers that came out of Thursday's action at Daytona International Speedway. And while Thursday's contests were simply qualifying races leading into Sunday's Daytona 500, there are some interesting story lines to analyze.

The Winners

Dave Blaney -- After finishing 32nd in last year's Sprint Cup point standings for Tommy Baldwin Racing, Blaney would have been locked into the Daytona 500 starting lineup - as the top 35 in points are guaranteed a starting position in NASCAR's biggest race. But Blaney's points were acquired by Stewart-Haas Racing in a complicated maneuver with TBR so that Patrick and would be assured a starting position. In order for Blaney to get into the Daytona 500 he would have to do it the old-fashioned way -- by earning it. Ever the old school racer, that's just what Blaney did by finishing 12th in Thursday's second race. "Old School doesn't mean much anymore," Blaney said. "I'm not worried about the top 35 deal. I'm just happy to be in the Daytona 500." He will start the Daytona 500 for the 11th time in his career. He will start 24th.

Tony Stewart -- The defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has carried the momentum from last year's Chase into the preliminary races at Daytona. He nearly won last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, losing by inches to Kyle Busch. But he backed it up with a powerful performance in Thursday's first Duel. With two laps to go, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got a push from Carl Edwards to take the lead, but that didn't last long as Stewart's Chevrolet rocketed back to the lead coming out of the second turn. Stewart had a sizeable lead at the white flag and went on to score his 17th career victory at Daytona. Despite those impressive numbers, Stewart has never won the Daytona 500. "The fact that we've won 17 times here and not won on the right day is proof it's good momentum, but it's no guarantee obviously," Stewart said. "To be able to come out and have two really good strong and solid races back-to-back is an awesome start for us." Stewart starts third on Sunday.

Matt Kenseth -- Mired back in fifth place with one lap left, Kenseth needed a little bit of help if he was going to have a chance at winning the race. The Ford driver was aided by an unlikely ally as Chevrolet driver Jimmie Johnson teamed up with Kenseth. The two took the outside line and drove to the front of the field, passing fellow Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle. "We just had a big run there," Kenseth said. "Jimmie Johnson gave me a huge push there and that really worked nice for me the whole race there. Without that push it would have never gotten done. It was a masterful tandem between two drivers in opposite camps but it was the move of the race." Kenseth starts fourth in the 500.

Michael McDowell -- An underfunded driver who has had to race his way into the Daytona 500 field two out of the last three years, McDowell started 21st and finished sixth in the first Daytona Duel driving for the low-budget No. 98 Ford. A spiritual individual, McDowell was grateful for the chance to once again compete in the Daytona 500 and proved that he belongs by improving 15 positions in Thursday's race. And, he was thankful he got some help from his friend, Trevor Bayne, who worked with McDowell throughout the race and was able to push him up through the field. McDowell will start 11th.

Trevor Bayne -- The defending Daytona 500 winner did not drive the full season last year so he did not have Top 35 points to assure him a spot in the field. But Bayne made the race off his qualification speed during Sunday's Time Trials. If he could advance into the race based on his finishing position in the first Duel, it would open up a spot for another driver. Bayne started fifth and finished 12th and that wasn't enough to get him in based on his finishing position, but he's still in the field. "Man, I'm really excited about Sunday," said Bayne, who starts 40th. "It really can't get here fast enough."

Joe Nemechek -- Another driver who had to race his way into the field, he finished 17th, one lap down, in the second race. But it was still enough for the non-guaranteed driver to get into the Daytona 500 for the 17th time in his career. "You talk about stress in your life -- on my gosh," Nemechek said. "What a relief -- there's been a lot of Tums taken this week. People have no clue how hard it is and working with very limited funds. It's a great day to make the Daytona 500." Nemechek will start 34th.

The Losers

Danica Patrick -- OK, so it was her first contest against NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. Although it was a non-points paying race, with so much attention on Patrick, she was just two turns away from finishing the first Daytona Duel in 12th place. By being back in the pack she had nowhere to go when Jamie McMurray's Chevrolet pinched off Aric Almirola's Ford and slammed into her Chevrolet. That sent the former IndyCar driver flying across the asphalt before slamming into the SAFER Barrier. Her car was destroyed and because the crash happened on the white flag lap, the race was complete with Stewart the winner ahead of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon. Despite Patrick's hard hit, the former IZOD IndyCar Series driver, who competed in her first race against Sprint Cup competition, was uninjured and credited with a 16th place finish for Stewart-Haas Racing.

"It happened really quick," Patrick said. "When it gets down to the end of the race everyone is on each other's doors. Unfortunately, I was part of it. I was having a solid race and worked my way in there for a little bit. I felt like I was slowing down trying to keep up with the pack. We were looking for a finish. It felt pretty big; I don't know what it looked like. I felt comfortable -- it was a matter of working with the right people. If I could have gotten up there it would have been a lot better. I'm just bummed out -- two corners to go and the GoDaddy car is in a ball. Maybe the backup car will be faster."

By switching to a backup car, Patrick will line up 29th on the grid but drop to the back of the pack before the start of the Daytona 500.

Michael Waltrip -- The two-time Daytona 500 winner was hoping to make the field for the 26th time in his career but the longtime veteran made a rookie mistake in the first race when he made his pit stop and lost control as he got up to speed trying to get back on the race track. Waltrip destroyed his Toyota and his 18th-place finish wasn't enough to get him into the Daytona 500. "I just went the wrong way and lost the car," Waltrip said. "I feel like I let everybody down. I raced my way to the front and then I let them down. It's just really hard. I don't know what to say -- it's just sad. I let everybody down."

Kurt Busch -- After leaving Penske Racing last year over a difference of opinion, which included several highly-publicized meltdowns, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion was hoping to get a fresh start with Phoenix Racing this season. Busch was having a solid race in the second Duel before NASCAR officials nailed him with a drive-through penalty for speeding off pit road when he made his pit stop with 20 laps to go. Instead of contending for victory, Busch finished 15th. No harm, no foul because Busch was already assured a spot in the race based on Top 35 points that Landon Cassill earned last year as driver for Phoenix Racing. Busch will start 38th.

Juan Pablo Montoya -- The 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner and former Formula One driver was hoping to have a solid finish in the first Daytona Duel. Instead, the driver from Colombia was part of a four-car crash on Lap 10 that also involved David Gilliland, Paul Menard and Michael McDowell, who was the only driver to continue. Montoya's 23rd place finish means he will have plenty of traffic to deal with at the start of Sunday's Daytona 500 as he starts 35th.

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