DAYTONA, Fla. – The Duels used to really mean something. Anymore, they're an exhibition for most, a lifeline for only a few. But they're still important, especially for those looking for a guaranteed paycheck of $250,000.
Once and only once a year, NASCAR scraps its normal qualifying procedures – one car, one clock, line 'em up on speed – in favor of a pair of shootouts known today as the Gatorade Duels. They are, in simple terms, two, 150-mile races that set the starting lineup for the Daytona 500.
The Twins, as they were known way back when, were the brainchild of Bill France Sr., who wanted to have a race on the Thursday before the Daytona 500.
Qualifying was still held on the Sunday before the 500, but that only locked in the front row. Ten others were locked in on qualifying speed. The rest of the field would be set by the Twins.
In the early 1960s, upwards of 70 to 80 cars showed up in Daytona trying to get in the race. Most would – only a handful were sent home – that is until NASCAR began paring down its field to around 40 cars later in the decade.
In 1971, 64 cars showed up; 24 were sent home, not fast enough in their Duel.
Through the years, the Duels, as they've come to be known in recent years, went through some changes – to make sure drivers had to pit at least once, they were extended from 100 miles to 125 to their current 150-mile length – but the premise always remained the same: If you want to qualify for the Daytona 500, you're going to have to race your way in.
Over the years, there were variations to the qualifying procedures. Just prior to 2005, only the fastest 25 cars in qualifying, plus seven provisional spots and one champion's provisional were guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500. That left at least 10 spots up for grabs in the Duels.
But that changed when NASCAR implemented its top 35 rule in 2005. Now, the top 35 cars in owner's points the previous season are guaranteed a spot. Three more spots are given to the fastest three qualifiers of the non-guaranteed drivers, leaving only four spots remaining.
Thursday, 17 drivers will be vying for those four spots.
Still, as Jim Hunter, NASCAR's director of communications, said, the twins have always been the best races of the year.
"Ask anybody," Hunter said.
And while they have lost some of their luster because of the top-35 rule, the fact remains that while a lot of attention Thursday will be reserved for who's leading the races, much will also be given to those drivers who aren't locked in. For those drivers, the Duel is their entire year. Fast enough, and they're in, guaranteed nothing less than a last-place check of around $250,000.