Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne took wins Thursday Gatorade Duel qualifying races to line up third and fourth respectively for Sunday's Daytona 500.
The pair of 150 mile races decide the starting order behind the front row decided last weekend in timetrial qualifying. They also decide the final four 'go-or-go-home' cars to make the race, where even last place means a payday of $250,000.
Both races were decided by a matter of inches as the leaders crossed the line side-by-side, reminiscent of Kevin Harvick's 2007 Daytona 500 victory.
Ironically it has Harvick who lost out to Johnson in first race by the paltry margin of 0.005 seconds.
Johnson, along with go-or-go-homer Max Papis had opted to stay out during a late race caution for an accident that saw Michael Waltrip spin out of turn four and hit the inside wall, heavily damaging his car.
But despite having older tyres, and perhaps helped by a poor restart by Papis that held up Greg Biffle and the rest of the outside line, Johnson was able to hang on over Harvick who had drafting help from behind from Richard Childress teammate Clint Bowyer and Earnhardt-Ganassi's Jamie McMurray.
It was a finish that almost saw what would have been a huge accident as Johnson no.48 Chevrolet was luridly loose through the tri-oval.
“[I] really didn’t know how many laps we had left,” said Johnson in the post race press conference. “I was hopeful it was going to be done soon. My spotter wasn’t really sure. As I went by the start/finish line sideways, I looked up and hoped that it was the checkered because I felt like I was going to spin out. I stayed on the gas, saved it. Everybody else let off around me, I knew the race was over.”
Behind there was further drama as go-or-go-home drivers fought over the two transfer spots that would put them in the 500.
Having dropped back Papis had been passed by Michael McDowell's Prism Motorsports Toyota, and now found himself fighting with Todd Bodine for the final spot. Coming into the final turn Bodine was ahead but could only slide wide on the exit of turn four, the resulting brush against the wall, just enough to let Papis, driving for Germain Racing, by. The likeable Italian declaring himself “speechless” on climbing from the car.
And there was to be more of the same in the second race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the opening laps having started from pole by quickly lost the lead to Juan Montoya. Earnhardt was never to recover, suffering minor damage later on in the race and dropping him to a 21st place finish. However, he will still take the start on Sunday from the front row.
The leader for much of the race was a surprise, as Brad Keselowski led a often dominant looking display that saw all three Penske Dodges – he and teammates Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish – in the top five.
But, as is often the case Keselowski, in his first full year in NASCAR's premier series, lost the lead and fell back, a loss compounded when he missed the pit entry commitment cone during the one and only caution, brought out by David Gilliland's spin.
On the final lap, it was a similar story to the first race, with Tony Stewart on the higher line trying to pass Kahne, a feat which, like Harvick before him, he failed to accomplish, falling short by a relatively cavernous 0.014 seconds as Kahne took his first win of the year in only his second race in a Ford.
Behind, the complexities of the Daytona 500's qualifying system were coming into play. In the closing laps four drivers – Scott Speed, Mike Bliss, Bobby Labonte and Casey Mears – were fighting for the two transfer spots.
Mike Bliss, forced to a back-up car after a crash in practice, finished thirteenth to take the first spot and Scott Speed followed him home for the second.
The result saw Speed, who had already guaranteed his start in the race in timetrials, race his way into the field, handing a starting spot to the next fastest qualifier – Michael Waltrip.
Waltrip, meanwhile had joined the presenting team for the US channel Speed and was watching the race was moved to tears as he realised he would make the race in the no.51 car, numbered in honour of Dale Earnhardt Sr. who ran Waltrip in the no.15 to the 2001 Daytona 500 victory, the same which, of course, claimed Earnhardt's life.
“I don't car what he [Scott Speed] does with his toenails,” said Waltrip, referring to the ex-F1 driver's habit of painting the bodypart in question.