DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Martin Truex Jr. never even considered hanging around in the back. But now, he'll have to start there -- and give up a front-row spot for the biggest race of the NASCAR season.
Truex was one of nine cars involved in a large accident coming to the checkered flag in the second of Thursday night's Budweiser Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway. Six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel in the middle of a pack, and the vehicle of Clint Bowyer flipped into the air in the ensuing melee. As a result, several teams had to move to backup cars and give up their starting spots for the Daytona 500 -- chief among them Truex, who four days earlier in qualifying had locked up a position on the front row.
In the night's first qualifier, Daytona 500 pole winner Austin Dillon dropped to the back to ensure his front-row position for the Great American Race. Truex said he and Todd Berrier, crew chief for his Furniture Row Racing team, never even considered doing the same thing.
"Hindsight is 20/20. Yeah, we should have parked the damn thing," Truex said. "But we're out here to race. That's what we do. Todd said we're here to race, and something bad happens, we've got a backup that's just as good. We'll be fine. It doesn't matter where we start here, anyway. The biggest thing is, I feel bad for the guys that built the race car and put all the effort into building a front-row race car, and us not being able to use it on Sunday. That's the worst part."
Thursday's accident continued a trend of teams needing to move to backup cars. Five teams were forced to start at the rear of Thursday night's qualifiers after moving to backups because of accidents in practice Wednesday. Six drivers involved in Thursday night's fracas were expected to move to backups, which will necessitate dropping to the rear of the Daytona 500 field since starting positions for the race have been set.
One of those is the event's defending champion, Johnson, who was trying to stretch his fuel to the end of the 60-lap event. But he ran dry with Jamie McMurray pushing from behind, and suddenly a powerless No. 48 car was into the outside wall. David Ragan went sideways in front of Bowyer, who flipped over the hood of the No. 34 car and landed on all four wheels. The vehicles of Truex, McMurray, and Michael Waltrip -- who went sliding along the pit wall -- all suffered damage as the accident unfolded.
"I ran out of gas, and I feel terrible," Johnson said. "So many good race care were torn up, and thankfully, everybody's OK. Saw the replay just now, and to see the 15 (car of Bowyer) upside down and tumbling -- man, I hate it. I ran out, and I got my hand out the window and tried to get out of the way, but with that much energy coming to the checkered flag, I just couldn't get out of the way in time, and I got turned around."
McMurray, who will now move to his car from the Sprint Unlimited -- which he said has been freshened back in the Chip Ganassi Racing shop in North Carolina -- wasn't aware Johnson was out of gas until it was too late.
"I was completely content just to push him in line, and I thought we could get to second and third," said McMurray, a former Daytona 500 winner. "I saw him move up, and just lost all power. So really, there's not much you can do. I didn't know that he'd run out of gas. I assumed something had happened, but I wasn't really sure."
The cars of Johnson and Truex both caught fire, but the driver who got the worst of it was Bowyer -- whose vehicle went nose-over-tail across the front end of Ragan's vehicle, before landing on all fours and sliding into the grass. "That was one of the wildest flips I've ever had," Bowyer said. "I think we would have been just fine if I hadn't hit the grass right here."
Waltrip, Bowyer's car owner, went sailing into the infield in the wake of the accident, and tried to slide along the pit wall until he crossed the start/finish line. But he came up short when his car reached a gap in the pit wall, and with his steering broken, he ground to a halt.
"I should have just backed off, but I don't get to race very often, and I would have been told to back off. I wouldn't have just volunteered to back off," said Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion. "We were coming to the checkered, and unfortunately we tore up our car. And to add insult to injury, while I'm spinning through the infield, I said, 'Oh, there's my 15 car flipping in the air.' So it's a rough period of time, but I think we're in anyway, and we'll take our ? backup off the trailer and try again Sunday."
All the drivers involved escaped uninjured, but it was the second day in a row a Sprint Cup car had gotten off the ground. Parker Kligerman's vehicle slid over the top of Paul Menard's in Wednesday's practice, doing some damage to the catchfence before turning over and sliding on its roof. Both that accident and Thursday's occurred in roughly the same area, as the cars were entering the tri-oval off Turn 4.
"It's been pretty wild, to say the least," Truex said. "I guess you can't really blame it on the cars tonight -- somebody ran out of gas. So that was a human error. Just like the wrecks in practice, it was all human error. It does make us a little nervous that the cars are getting off the ground again, but I think it's more of just cars hitting the right way than the air doing it or just spinning and flipping over."
Ragan, a two-time winner on restrictor-plate tracks, called the accidents "just coincidence. When you're racing in a pack, one guy has an issue, and the result is a lot of cars got torn up. That's unfortunate, but glad everybody's safe. The safety stuff worked as planned, and everything was good."
Truex's backup is a new car, according to his No. 78 team. "Just as good," he said, when asked how it compared to the primary. Thursday's wreck marked the fourth multicar accident of what's become a busy Speedweeks for mechanics and fabricators -- and the Daytona 500 is still yet to come.
"Hopefully," Ragan said, "we get all this stuff out of our system before Sunday."
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