What’s at stake in The Gatorade Duels

For most of the field, Thursday's two 150-mile Duels will be a chance to get some more laps on the track in race trim, and they'll see how their cars perform without pushing the envelope too far. Here's the spotter's-eye view of the two duels:

Duel 1: Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. make up the front row. Big names in this field also include Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin. (Full list here.)

Duel 2: Greg Biffle and, yes, Casey Mears are on the front row, with major names including Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch in the mix here. Clint Bowyer starts in the back of this Duel because of violations. (Full list here.)

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But for 10 drivers, including some major names of the not-too-distant past, the Duels represent their last chance to get into the field of the 2012 Daytona 500. With 39 spots already taken, only four spaces remain ... and there will be some well-known drivers heading home a lot earlier than they wanted to come Thursday afternoon.

In the first Duel, you've got Michael Waltrip, Michael McDowell, Mike Wallace and Robby Gordon. In the second, Kenny Wallace, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek, Bill Elliott, Robert Richardson and JJ Yeley.

Here's how it will work: the top two non-guaranteed drivers in each duel will get in. The next three spots go to the drivers with the highest qualifying speeds (in this case, Trevor Bayne, Tony Raines and David Stremme). If any of those drivers manages to race his way in by finishing in the top two in his duel, Kenny Wallace, Blaney and Waltrip would be in line to take a spot. The final spot will go to a past champion (either Elliott or, if necessary, Terry Labonte.)

Robby Gordon, McDowell, Nemechek, Richardson, Wallace and Yeley have no choice but to race their way into the Daytona 500. No pressure there, right?

In other words, pay very close attention on Thursday afternoon. It's going to change minute by minute and lap by lap.

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