The front row for the Daytona 500 is set in stone with Carl Edwards on the pole and his Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle alongside of him. The rest of the field will be determined by the finish of the Gatorade Duels on February 23.
Winning a Gatorade Duel race is a nice feather in a team's cap but it means nothing if they crash out in the first 100 laps of the Daytona 500. The Gatorade Duels are nothing more than a rehearsal for many of the drivers but there are three spots up for grabs in the Daytona 500.
The drivers to watch will be drivers looking to earn trust from their veteran counterparts. Last year the eventual Daytona 500 champ, Trevor Bayne, gained the trust of many drivers, including NASCAR Sprint Cup legend Jeff Gordon.
Bayne, a fresh-faced rookie, took to restrictor plate racing immediately and earned the trust of his Ford teammates along with Gordon. The relationships that Bayne earned during the Gatorade Duel and practice paid off with a win that Sunday in the Daytona 500.
The driver under the most scrutiny heading into this race is Danica Patrick. Danica has already earned respect from several drivers leading up to the Gatorade Duels February 23 but she will establish her drafting partners for the Daytona 500 during her qualifying race.
It is important for inexperienced drivers to stay out of trouble early but they must get their feet wet drafting in packs. Danica has limited experience racing in packs since last season when the restrictor plate races featured tandem drafting instead of pack racing.
Another driver who will be looking to earn respect and a sponsor will be Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenhouse won the NASCAR Nationwide title last season but that was then and this is Daytona. Stenhouse will start from scratch in his Roush Fenway Ford but he will have several Ford teammates to ask for help including Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and former Daytona champ, Matt Kenseth.
Drivers who opt to stay back and avoid the fray early in the Gatorade Duels will be at a disadvantage for the Daytona 500. Look for Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to hang back and avoid racing with the pack. If they dohang back no drivers, other than teammates, will help them later.
The drivers who race to the front and practice driving up through the pack throughout the Duels will be the drivers who have a chance at the end of the Daytona 500. This gives drivers who love to race in the packs, like Dale Earnhardt jr and Tony Stewart, the edge to win their Gatorade Duel race and the Daytona 500. Racers race and a racer will win in Daytona.
*Todd Jacobs is an avid race fan who grew up watching sprint car racing legends race at Ascot Park in Gardena and Indy cars and NASCAR Cup cars at the Ontario Motor Speedway in Southern California. He has followed all forms of motorsports from open wheel sprint car racing to Formula One and all disciplines in between.
NASCAR Integrated Media: Daytona 500 statistical advance