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Daytona 500 Qualifying: Explaining The Process For Non-NASCAR Fans

No race, with the possible exception of the Indianapolis 500, carries more prestige than the Daytona 500. And no race, with zero exceptions, carries a more complex - and confusing - qualifying format than the one used to set the Great American Race's 43-car field.

It all boils down to simple math = 43 cars start every Sprint Cup race, including the Daytona 500. The bulk of those - 35, in fact - are drivers whose positions are locked in courtesy of their position in car owner points for the previous season. That is to say that, just as the drivers score points every race, their car and car owners score the same amount of points the driver accumulates. Those car owner standings, in turn, determine the 35 drivers who are locked into every race. At the beginning of a new season, the top 35 points from the past year carry over for the first five races, before the new points kick in beginning with race number six.

Because of some wheeling and dealing amongst car owners, however, the top 35 in owner points following the season-ending race in Miami is rarely the top 35 once the Daytona 500 rolls around. There are always a handful of teams who picked up owner points - usually from top 35 team that closed up shop after the completion of the last season - to get themselves locked into the 500.

So, if 35 cars are guaranteed to compete in the Great American Race before they turn a lap, how are the other eight spots filled?

For every qualifying session, including Daytona, there are 35 cars that are locked in, but every weekend more than 43 cars show up to try to qualify. The drivers not in the top 35 in owner points are aptly titled "go-or-go-homers." The seven or eight fastest of those drivers drivers - depending on whether or not the past champion's provisional is utilized - claim the remaining positions in a race - except for the Daytona 500.

Again, it boils down to simple math:

  • Three drivers lock themselves into the race by being the fastest go-or-go-homers in Daytona 500 pole qualifying.
  • Four drivers, the top-two finishing go-or-go-homers from each race, lock themselves in via the two 150-mile Gatorade Duel Qualifying Races the Thursday before the 500.
  • The final spot either goes to the most recent past champion not already locked into the field based on owner points, his qualifying performance, or his run in his Gatorade Duel, or to the next fastest car in Daytona 500 time trials that is not locked in.

The Duels themselves have a way of complicating things further, however.

If the three fastest drivers in Daytona 500 qualifying, as well as the driver who claims the past champion's provisional, are among the top-two finishing GGH cars, a "back door way" into the 500 opens up.

See, by claiming their spot in the Duels, the driver or drivers who lock in through the qualifying race no longer have to stand on their qualifying time. For each driver who had already assured himself of starting the race in time trials who races his way into the 500 via the Duels, the next fastest car or cars from time trials who are not locked into the race in turn qualify for the 500 based on their qualifying speed.

Using this season as an example, Daytona 500 pole qualifying was held yesterday. The three-fastest GGH drivers were Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil, and Joe Nemechek. Terry Labonte, courtesy of the past-champion's provisional, also locked himself in. Those four, regardless of what happens Thursday, are guaranteed to start the Daytona 500.

Because those four are guaranteed a shot, the "back door" is also open to the next four fastest GGH drivers from time trials, in order: Michael Waltrip, Dave Blaney, Todd Bodine, and Kevin Conway.

So if, for instance, Elliott and Nemechek are among the top-two GGH drivers in their qualifying races, they lock themselves into the 500 that way, thus getting Waltrip and Blaney into the 500 as well. If Elliott, Kvapil, Nemechek, and Labonte all qualify through their Duels, then Waltrip, Blaney, Kvapil, and Conway all qualify for the race based on their qualifying speeds.

There are five other drivers - Casey Mears, Michael McDowell, Derrike Cope, JJ Yeley, and Brian Keselowski - whose only opportunity to make the 500 is by finishing amongst the top-two of the GGH cars in their respective Gatorade Duel.

The 13 go-or-go-home drivers, the Gatorade Duel race they will be competing in, and their remaining opportunities to make the Daytona 500 (cars already locked in in bold)

#09 Bill Elliott Gatorade Duel 1 - Locked-in by qualifying speed, can qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#38 Travis Kvapil Gatorade Duel 2 - Locked-in by qualifying speed, can qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#87 Joe Nemechek Gatorade Duel 1 - Locked-in by qualifying speed, can qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#55 Michael Waltrip Gatorade Duel 2 - Can qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel or if one (1) locked-in car qualifies via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#36 Dave Blaney Gatorade Duel 1 - Can qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel or if two (2) locked-in cars qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#60 Todd Bodine Gatorade Duel - Can qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel or if three (3) locked-in cars qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#97 Kevin Conway Gatorade Duel 1 - Can qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel or if all four (4) locked-in cars qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#13 Casey Mears Gatorade Duel 2 - Can only qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#66 Michael McDowell Gatorade Duel 1 - Can only qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#32 Terry Labonte Gatorade Duel 2 - Locked-in by past champion's provisional, can qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#46 JJ Yeley Gatorade Duel 1 - Can only qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#64 Derrike Cope Gatorade Duel 2 - Can only qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

#92 Brian Keselowski Gatorade Duel 2 - Can only qualify via top-two finish (among GGH cars) in Duel

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.