As long as there have been Daytona 500s, there have been qualifying races. From 1959-71, the races actually counted for points towards the NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) championship. Starting in 1972, the first year of NASCAR's "modern era" when all races counted for the same number of points rather than Superspeedway races paying a higher number than short track events, the point payout for the qualifiers was dropped.
The events have undergone a pair of distance extensions. From the 1959 inaugural through the 1967 event, the races were 40 laps long, for a 100-mile distance. The 1968 races were scheduled for 50 laps (125 miles) but were rained out, so the first running of what would become known as the Gatorade Twin 125s came in 1969. In 2005, the races were extended another ten laps, to 150 miles, and rebranded to their current moniker, the Gatorade Duels.
The 2012 edition of the qualifying races, scheduled for Thursday afternoon (2 p.m. Eastern on SPEED), will feature 14 non-top-35 or "go-or-go-home" drivers who have the opportunity to race their way into the field. All but four of them - Trevor Bayne, Tony Raines, and David Stremme, along with past champion Terry Labonte - also have the opportunity to fail to make the 43-car starting grid in Sunday's race.
So how do the Duels work? Taking a complicated structure and trying to simplify it as best as possible, the entire 49-car entry list is divided in half. The first race will include 25 cars, the second will feature 24. The first race features the odd-numbered cars in last year's top-35 owner points (champion Tony Stewart, third place finisher Kevin Harvick, and so on) and the odd-numbered go-or-go-home drivers based off qualifying speeds (fastest Trevor Bayne, third quick David Stremme, and so on), all arranged by their qualifying speed. The second race features even-numbered finishers in last year's owner points and the even-numbered non-top-35 drivers from time trials, again arranged by the speed they turned Sunday.
For top-35 drivers who know they will race Sunday, today's races are simple. Wherever they finish will be their spot in the inside (race one) or outside (race two) on the Daytona 500 starting grid. The exceptions are polesitter Carl Edwards and outside polesitter Greg Biffle, who will start from those positions Sunday - barring an accident today or in the final practice sessions.
The other 14 drivers have a much more complicated task ahead. All of them, including the four drivers already locked in, can race their way in via their respective Gatorade Duel by finishing in the top-two among non-top-35 cars. If a locked-in driver races his way in, then he opens up a position on speed, which the next fastest driver would assume.
In other words, if Bayne, Raines, and Stremme all race their way in,for instance, then Kenny Wallace, Labonte, and Dave Blaney could make the race on their speed. Labonte qualifying via speed or a top-two finish in his Duel would have major local implications, as it would free up the past champion's provisional for Dawsonville's Bill Elliott. Labonte recieves top priority for the provisional, having recorded his most recent (of two) championships in 1996, eight years after Elliott claimed his crown.
All 14 go-or-go-homers are listed below along with their method for potentially making the 500.
Locked in after time trials (can race into 500 via top-two finish among go-or-go-homers in Gatorade Duel)
Trevor Bayne - No 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford
Tony Raines - No. 26 Front Row Motorsports Ford
David Stremme - No. 30 Inception Motorsports Toyota
Can race way in or transfer by speed if locked-in driver races in
Kenny Wallace - No. 09 RAB Racing Toyota
Terry Labonte - No. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford (past champion)
Dave Blaney - No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet
Michael Waltrip - No. 40 Hillman Motorsports Toyota
Must race in via Gatorade Duel
Joe Nemechek - No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports Toyota
Michael McDowell - No. 98 Phil Parsons/Dusty Whitney Ford
Bill Elliott - No. 97 NEMCO Motorsports Toyota (can qualify via past-champion provisional if Labonte races in or transfers via qualifying speed)
Mike Wallace - No. 37 Larry Gunselman Ford
Robert Richardson Jr. - No. 23 R3 Motorsports Toyota
Robby Gordon - No. 7 Robby Gordon Motorsports Dodge
J.J. Yeley - No. 49 America/Israel Racing Toyota
Don't be surprised if Robby Gordon and Mike Wallace each make a strong bid to make the show. Both are accomplished drivers. Dave Blaney ran well in all four plate races last season - including a third-place showing at Talladega and leading several laps at last year's Daytona 500 - and should be able to at least contend for a top-two finish in his Duel if he can't transfer in via speed.