Fifty-four cars were split into two fields of 27 entries for Thursday's Gatorade Duel 150-mile races to set the field for Sunday's Daytona 500. The already determined front row occupants of the 500, pole sitter Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., each led the field to the green in their respective duel races.
Martin started up front for the first duel and led most of the first half of that race, with the exception being the first two laps that were led by Ryan Newman. Meanwhile, Bill Elliott and Owensboro, Ky., native and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip held on to the two Daytona 500 transfer spots that were up for grabs in the first duel during much of the time Martin was leading.
Through the closing segment of the first duel, though, the lead traded hands several times, as did the transfer positions. One driver who was pretty much a constant among the two transfer spots was Waltrip, that was until seven laps to go, when he went through the infield grass before making contact with the inside wall.
When the checkers fell on the first Gatorade Duel of the afternoon, Jimmie Johnson won by a hair, just barely beating out Saturday's Budweiser Shootout winner Kevin Harvick. Johnson beat Harvick to the line by 0.006 of a second.
"Hey, you win some, you lose some, all you can ask for is a chance," Harvick said of his near miss.
Claiming spots in the Daytona 500 with their runs in the first duel were Michael McDowell and Max Papis with 14th and 15th-place finishes. Following the first duel, McDowell said that he felt like he had just won the Daytona 500.
Waltrip would have to wait until the conclusion of the second duel to find out whether or not he would get an opportunity to try to win his third Daytona 500. For Waltrip to make the Daytona 500, Scott Speed or Bobby Labonte would have to claim one of the two transfer spots in the second duel, so they wouldn't have to rely on their Saturday qualifying time. Waltrip was the next fastest go or go homer during Saturday's qualifying session behind Speed and Labonte, and could take one their spots, should one of them race his way in during the second duel race.
In the intermission period between the two duels, Waltrip commented that he could be smiling or crying after the second duel.
Mike Bliss was another driver who may have possibly been cheering for Speed and Labonte a little, even though they were in the same duel as he was. If Bliss couldn't race his way in with his duel finish, he would earn a Daytona 500 starting position based on his Saturday qualifying speed if both Speed and Labonte occupied the two transfer spots from the second duel. Bliss was the next fastest go or go home driver after Waltrip on Saturday.
When the green flag flew signaling the start of the second duel, pole sitter Earnhardt Jr. led a few laps early before former JR Motorsports employee and still new Penske Racing driver Brad Keselowski took over and dominated for several laps. Keselowski kept his No. 12 car up front with the help of Penske teammate Kurt Busch until a pit miscue resulted in a restart in the back of the pack.
Busch kept things going for the Penske organization, though, seeming to pick up where Keselowski left off by leading several laps.
Meanwhile, Bliss spent much of the second duel race in one of the transfer spots, not relying on both Speed and Labonte to finish the race in one of the two transfer positions. Bliss would claim his spot in the Daytona 500 with a 13th-place finish in the second duel.
As eyes were on the transfer or "get in" spots, Kasey Kahne captured the checkered flag for the win in the second Gatorade Duel. Tony Stewart, after starting near the front and falling back early, fought his way up toward the front to post a runner-up finish.
Speed finished right behind Bliss in the 14th position to claim the second transfer spot, which was good news for Waltrip. With Speed's run in the second duel, Waltrip was able to claim one of the final Daytona 500 starting spots based on his Saturday qualifying speed.
The Daytona 500 will air live on FOX beginning at noon ET Sunday.
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