Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth took victory – and a second row start for the Daytona 500 – away from the Gatorade Duels, as the pair of 60 lap races offered a glimpse into what to expect from Sunday's big race.
Just as in last weekend's Budweiser Shootout the pair of races saw much more of the big pack racing, compared to recent years when the two-car draft has been the tactic of choice. However, rule changes for the 2012 season has handed back the advantage to those who can run in the three-wide pack. The change in tactic was displayed when Marcos Ambrose and Denny Hamlin pitted together late in the first Duel, and despite drafting together around the 2.5 mile Superspeedway were still caught and passed by the main pack.
Ambrose and Hamlin had been forced into pitting under green after they stayed out during and early caution after David Gilliland, Juan Montoya and Paul Menard wadded up together in turn one, putting all three out of the race.
Ambrose led at the restart, but was shuffled back to rear of the main pack, while Hamlin led the way in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota but the pair pitted together on lap 44. They held out infront of the pack for a number of laps but were eventually lapped with Ambrose was ahead of Hamlin.
That order proved to be crucial because it was Ambrose who was awarded the Lucky Dog when Michael Waltrip crashed as he pulled back on to the track after making a pitstop of his own. Waltrip was one of several 'go-or-go-home' drivers who needed a strong finish in the Duel races to secure place in the 43-car grid for the Daytona 500 and the crash will keep Waltrip out of the race.
Tony Stewart led for the remainder of the race, though Carl Edwards pushed Dale Earnhardt Jr. ahead in the closing laps before Stewart surged back to the lead around the outside. Stewart's move back to the lead came just in time as the race ended under caution less than a lap later when Aric Almirola and Danica Patrick made contact exiting turn two.
Stewart described the move that put him back in the lead. “The hard part was I got a really good push from Kevin [Harvick] that got us back in the lead there from third. The hard part is when it got us up there, they separated us. That easily could have got us freight trained to the back.”
“Where Kevin was, he ended up just being two-wide with Dale Jr., that pulled both of their momentum. My spotter told me to get hooked back up with Kevin. To me, I felt it was better to keep the momentum going. I felt like unless they just got a really big run, we were going to be able to pick which line got going and be able to hopefully protect and stay leading that line. So felt like we were better off trying to keep the momentum than trying to break it, get hooked up with Kevin again, take a chance of getting passed by a bunch of guys not having that opportunity again.”
Earnhardt Jr. was second behind Stewart when the caution fell, with Ambrose third ahead of Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards, though Edwards' starting position was already decided after he clinched pole position in Sunday's time trial qualifying.
Patrick – in her first Sprint Cup race – hit the barrier on the side of the track after sliding across the paved infield. The no.10 GoDaddy.com car was destroyed but Patrick climbed from the car unhurt and will start the Daytona 500.
Patrick's guaranteed start comes courtesy of the owner points earned by Dave Blaney in 2011. The decision by team owner Tommy Baldwin meant Blaney was one of the drivers who had to race his way into the Daytona 500 in the second Duel and the Ohio native accomplished the task easily, never falling out of the pair of transfer spots on offer.
“I was confident we could get in,” said Blaney who finished 12th after running in the top five early in the race. “We’ve had strong runs here lately in the restrictor plate cars. Baldwin’s group always brings good ones. It ran well today, it could run near the front early. We settled in for a while. We had to be so cautious not to slide the tires. That could have killed our race. We gave up staying with the pack because of that, but it ended up fine, uneventful, which was good for us.”
Unlike the first Duel – which featured the multi-car incidents indicative of pack racing – the second race was a calmer affair, running caution free.
The race was dominated by Roush drivers Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth who led 49 of the 60 laps between them, 39 being led by Biffle.
Also guaranteed a front row spot in after qualifying second fastest Biffle should have added a Duel win to his Speedweek CV. Running a the head of a small line of cars that included a handful of lapped drivers Biffle opted to jump out to block Kenseth, who was being pushed by Jimmie Johnson – one of the few times on the day when the two car draft proved the faster way around the track.
Kenseth and Johnson simply swung onto the low line vacated by Biffle and led the pack past the driver of the no.16. Through turns one and two Johnson backed off Kenseth's rear bumper, giving him a crucial buffer down the back straight. Both trying to find a way around Kenseth Johnson and Regan Smith made side-to-side contact, and the loss of momentum let Kenseth get away further.
The final challenge of a frantic last lap – quite different from much of the second Duel – was from Kurt Busch, pushed by Elliott Sadler. However, Sadler fell away from Busch at the vital moment coming off turn four and Busch alone couldn't outpace Kenseth to the flag.
Joe Nemechek joined Dave Blaney in qualifying to the Daytona 500 from the second Duel, Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon having made the same transfer after the opening race.
Defending race winner Trevor Bayne, Tony Raines and David Stremme were confirmed on the grid thanks to their qualifying time trial times – the fastest three of the 'go-or-go-home' group. Terry Labonte will also race in the Daytona 500, though he had to rely on the Champions' Provisional to secure his berth.