The races were as polar opposites as their winners.
Thursday’s Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying races provided a stark contrast in racing at Daytona International Speedway and left a cloud of uncertainty around how Sunday’s Daytona 500 might look.
Will it be like the wreck-marred first qualifying race won by reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart?
Or more like the second qualifying race, which was incident-free and won with a deft pass by Matt Kenseth of his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle.
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The two winners had different takes, almost as different as their personalities. The brash, outspoken Stewart preferred his wilder race while the more low-key Kenseth gave a nod to his caution-free race.
“I think it will be similar to what you saw today,” Stewart said, talking about his race. “You know, you got to get these cars to 500 miles. It doesn’t matter what you do at 150.
“You’re going to have to take care of the engine. You’re going to have to take care of the nose and the tail on these cars and not get yourself in compromising positions.
“I think the guys that get impatient are the guys that will get in trouble, and the guys that are smart will race smart. I think that’s typically what it comes down to here anyway.”
Kenseth hopes to see a repeat of his qualifying race.
“It was a little warm out there, and there was a little bit of handling that came into the car. It was harder to get from the back to the front than I expected,” he said.
“There will be more cars out there, obviously, in the 500, so there will be a bigger hole in the air. The rear car will have bigger runs and will be going faster, which will create more passing.
“I think we’ll see a mixture.”
T races had a common element — much of the two-car drafting that dominated racing here last season seems gone.
With the current rules package, cars were unable to remain linked together long before engine temperatures spiked dangerously in the trailing car.
Thursday’s win was Stewart’s third in a Daytona qualifying race in the past five years. He has won every NASCAR event hosted by DIS in his career except a victory in the 500.
As unlikely as it sounds, Kenseth’s win was the first in a Daytona qualifying race for RFR in its 25-year existence.
Roush might have the upper hand, at least at the start of Sunday’s race, as its three drivers will start first, second and fourth.
Carl Edwards and Biffle locked in the top two starting positions for the 500 during qualifying on Sunday. Kenseth’s win gives him the fourth starting position.
Stewart’s win will give him the third starting position. His victory continues a strong Speedweeks, as he finished second in Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout.
While much of the field was already determined by the Top 35 in car owner points, qualifying speeds from Sunday and the past champion’s provisional, four drivers raced their way into the field by virtue of their finishing results on Thursday.
In the first race, Robby Gordon and Michael McDowell raced their way into the 500 field. Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek got in through the second qualifying race.
Two-time 500 winner Michael Waltrip, who needed to race his way in, wrecked in the first qualifying race as he attempted to exit pit road and return to the track.
The Daytona 500 will be without a member of the Waltrip family this season for the first time since 1972. He will, however, be a member of Fox Sports’ broadcast team on Sunday.
“I feel like I let everybody down,” a dejected Waltrip said after his race.
“I raced my way to the front and then I let them down. It’s just really hard. I don’t know what to say — it’s just sad.”