DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Qualifying for the biggest race of the season is still a roller coaster ride for Michael McDowell. After last Wednesday’s pre-Daytona 500 practice session there was no doubt about the quickness of his Sprint Cup car; he had pushed past the 200 mph barrier, after all.
But then when Ryan Blaney, a rookie of all drivers, knocked him from his perch in the Can-Am qualifier four days later, McDowell left the Speedway disappointed in himself and for the modest team that presented him with this opportunity, Leavine Family Racing. Granted, his road to the Daytona 500 starting grid wasn’t completely closed off. But now he’d have to qualify through one of the 150-mile Can-Am Duel races, an all-too-familiar detour. In four years of trying here he’s only gotten really lucky at the Speedway once, finishing a heroic ninth in the 2013 500 after barely making the cut. His other tries had been mostly forgettable.
On Thursday night, though, McDowell was in high spirits again and for good reason. In the evening’s fist duel race he had skirted disaster for 60 furious laps and placed 15th on the way to landing a place on Sunday’s starting grid. “You all know what it means to be in the 500,” he said. “I’ve been on the other side too, where I’ve been loading up and going home on a Thursday night. I definitely appreciate it when we make the races.”
No, he didn’t grab the checkered flag; actually, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took that while stamping himself as an undeniable favorite at this place yet again. But be assured, McDowell did score a major victory here. When the evening began McDowell was one of six drivers vying for two “race-in” spots into the Great American Race. Another, Robert Richardson Jr., claimed the other slot for himself by finishing 18th in the second duel race, behind race winner and defending series champion Kyle Busch—who will start Sunday’s race on the front row. If none of this sounds terribly exciting, too bad. These kinds of plot twists will be providing dramatic thrust for many Daytona 500s to come.
The die was cast at the beginning of this season, when NASCAR adopted a charter system. Along with imbuing a more tangible value to the franchises who bought in, it also reserves spots for 36 cars in every race this season. Qualifying for the Daytona 500? Most of that was done way ahead of time, back at the shop, by team owners. Two of the four remaining spots went to the speediest non-medallion holders, Blaney and another rookie named Matt DiBenedetto. The balance was settled in the two duels.
• Subscribe to get the best of Sports Illustrated delivered right to your inbox
Fans now no longer have to go into Great American Race fearing their favorite Cup racers may not make the cut. That’s not a bad thing for a series that's starting a new season down on star power. (Recall: Jeff Gordon is retired and calling the race for FOX, and Tony Stewart’s farewell tour was placed on hold after he broke his back in an ATV accident late last month.) Wrecks like the late-race Big One that caught up Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger and Danica Patrick (the apparent catalyst) are no longer the great threats to competitive integrity that they once were. Now, all that happens is the cars get cut (Truex was the first driver to report he’d soon be steering a backup), and the grid lineup is reshuffled. (Note, however: Rookie Chase Elliott, who finished sixth in the first race, remains the pole sitter.)
Another product of the new charter: last row racers now have a rare chance to bask in the spotlight. Richardson said he was mowing his hay patch when BK Racing called him up for this assignment. (So no one will confuse him for the three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer then.) The driver promised to dedicate his winnings to his newborn son’s college fund. His performance on Thursday guarantees he won’t be going back to the ranch empty handed.
The quick reflexes he showed in dodging the Big One in the second Duel race augurs well for his chances of enjoying a solid Sunday. Ditto McDowell—who kept his cool as Cole Whitt, another driver on the bubble, raced him close. When Whitt spun out with less than 20 laps to go McDowell hit his marks and cruised to the finish.
It was a heckuva of a ride. The whole night was, really. Thrilling, but in a way that’s more familiar to college hoops in March than oval racing in February. Call it the new normal. And get used to it.