DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As Danica Patrick and her race team assembled in front of a banner honoring the pole winner Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, Jeff Gordon stood off to one side trading handshakes and high-fives with his crew members. One of those drivers may be starting first in the Daytona 500, but the other might be the bigger threat to win it.
While Patrick dominated the spotlight by becoming the first woman to capture a pole in NASCAR's top series -- and for the sport's biggest race, no less -- other drivers used Sunday as a stepping-stone toward another, much larger achievement looming one week away. The road to winning the Daytona 500 has begun in earnest, and like a developing photograph, a class of top contenders appears to be taking shape.
There's Gordon, who has secured a starting spot on the outside front row. There's Kevin Harvick, who won Saturday night's season-opening Sprint Unlimited before turning in an unexpectedly slow qualifying lap. There are Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart, fast on Saturday night, and fast again Sunday afternoon. There's Dale Earnhardt Jr., always dangerous on the sport's biggest tracks, and perhaps others yet to be revealed
"I think there are so many cars in this field that are good enough to win," Gordon said. "I think there are probably 10 or 15 drivers that have the confidence in what they're doing to separate themselves a little bit from the competition. Maybe it's just that they've won a race on a restrictor-plate track or a Daytona 500, and they kind of understand what it takes. But I'll be honest with you, after that it's all about position and making a move in the closing laps that you hope is the right one. And the rest kind of follows."
It's not unusual for one driver or team to assert itself as a clear favorite over the first half of Speedweeks, but the presence of the new Generation-6 Sprint Cup car has forced a learning curve that will stretch at least into Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races -- and potentially further than that. As it stands now, the opening few days at Daytona have produced a historic pole run by Patrick, and a swarm of other drivers who could be viewed as the biggest threats to win the Great American Race.
After pole qualifying, Gordon's name is certainly on that list. The four-time champion's car was the last one through inspection Sunday, because it slipped off the jack when the No. 24 team was performing maintenance, ripping the right-side rocker panel off the vehicle. Repairs were made in time for Gordon to push Patrick for the pole, but crew chief Alan Gustafson wasn't ready to pronounce the vehicle a favorite for the Daytona 500.
"No," he said. "The 150s are really the best time. You start to realize some things in the 150s. Fortunately, we've been in this position a few times, having a guaranteed spot. It's a tough call, to race not to race. At times it can be a burden -- if you don't have anything to lose, you'll be more aggressive in the 150s and ultimately learn more. We've got to be more cautious about that and put some thought as how we're going to attack Thursday, because I think that's the only time you're going to get to understand what your car's going to behave like in the 500."
So if there are cars to beat for the Great American Race, the Duels are when they may arise. "It's really tough to call a favorite for this race," Gustafson said. "But you will see the players, in my opinion, Thursday. The guys who battle for the win in that race -- guys and gals, sorry -- those will be the people that you will look to for the Daytona 500."
Maybe. Stewart wonders if half the field might not be enough for drivers to get the truest indication of what might unfold in the Daytona 500, given the differences in drafting between the new cars and their predecessors.
"As much as we'd like to think it's Thursday with these cars, I don't think it's going to be Thursday like it has been the last couple of years," he said. "I think it's going to be transferred to Sunday before you really know."
Particularly given the expected differences in weather conditions between this weekend and next, which is projected to be much warmer -- making the 2.5-mile track that much slicker, and placing a much greater premium on handling. "You're already starting to hear about handling becoming an issue," Jeff Burton said. "Well, its going to be a real issue in the 500."
That's certainly what Harvick, who posted the 25th-fastest qualifying time Sunday, is expecting. "I think some of the speed in our car is not there because of the weather," he said. "I think as the week heats up, hopefully that will kind of come to us a little bit more from a handling aspect. But I still don't think you get the full effect of how the draft is going to work until you get all those cars out there ? It's going to be much different when you get all those cars out there."
Then again, new car or old, so much of restrictor-plate racing is an unknown. Gordon estimates that in two of his Daytona 500 wins, victory came down to another driver going with him when he decided to make his move at the end.
"You can't plan, predict or say early in the week -- I knew I was going to make that move that was going to win me the Daytona 500," he said.
Likewise, Kenseth remembers having a miserable Speedweeks in 2009, even changing shocks on his car early in the Daytona 500, but was in the right place at the right time and won the race when rain began to fall.
"You never know whether you're going to win or not," he said.
Then again, last year he was among the class of Speedweeks from the start, and was confident he could win the race even before it began.
Now? "For down here, I'm as confident as I've ever been," Kenseth said. "(Saturday) night, I couldn't have asked any more out of my car. It was really, really fast. I thought it was one of the strongest cars in the field. ? Our speed and handling was good. So I'm looking forward to getting back on the track Wednesday and getting back in race conditions on Thursday, and seeing what it's going to be like during the day."
Strong words indeed from a two-time winner of this race. But if there's a clear favorite for the Daytona 500, that driver has yet to rise above a crowded field of top contenders. And then there's Patrick, who has been flat-out fast on the 2.5-mile oval since January testing. And then there's always the chance for an out-of-the-blue winner, like Trevor Bayne two years ago.
This is Daytona, after all.
"The great things about these races is, you can have the fastest car and not even come close to winning, and you can have the slowest car and win the race," Harvick said. "So we just feel like anytime we come here or Talladega, you can put yourself in a position to win."
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