Four drivers are already locked in: Bill Elliott, Scott Speed, Joe Nemechek, and Bobby Labonte. I am especially happy for Nemechek, who just barely missed the Daytona 500 on both counts last year (he was very close to making it on speed and in the duels).
Four more drivers have a chance of making the race based on their speed, if some or all of the above drivers race their way in. Those drivers are Michael Waltrip, Mike Bliss, Reed Sorenson, and Casey Mears. Is this likely to happen, though? I looked back at the last two years. Last year, only one driver who was already locked in on speed raced his way in during the duels, and that driver was Tony Stewart. In 2008, none of the drivers who were guaranteed a spot based on their qualifying speed raced their way in. Based on that, it appears highly unlikely that all of these drivers will get in based on their speeds. Michael Waltrip may be in pretty good shape, but I wouldn't rely on my speed if I were any of the other three drivers in this group.
With all of that said, who has the best chance of making the Daytona 500? Here are some of my thoughts:
With Joe Nemechek's limited budget and guaranteed spot based on his speed, I expect he will be very cautious during this race and probably won't race his way in. In Bill Elliott's case, I think he will try to stay up front, but he may also choose to be cautious if his car isn't as good and he drops back in the field.
Michael Waltrip is a very good plate racer, as we all have seen over the years. Considering this could be his last start, I am certain he is as determined as ever to make this race. Barring an accident or mechanical problem, I think there is a very good chance that he will take one of the two spots in this duel.
So, who will get the other spot? Reed Sorenson is the most likely candidate, as his Cup experience far outweighs that of his competitors (Papis, Fuller, Cook, McDowell, and Shelmerdine). He also has solid backing from Dollar General and the support of Braun Racing, which has a very strong Nationwide operation. If he doesn't make it, though, it's hard to pick a favorite among the remaining drivers. One of them could turn out to be this year's cinderella story!
Scott Speed and Bobby Labonte are the two drivers locked into the field that will be in this race. Labonte is locked in with his past champion's provisional (though he also had the 4th-quickest speed in qualifying, which essentially makes the provisional a non-issue among the drivers because he is guaranteed a spot with or without it). I have a feeling Labonte will drop back to take care of his car, since his team also has somewhat limited funding. Scott Speed, on the other hand, will likely try to race his way in. Red Bull has a huge amount of money (meaning that a torn up race car wouldn't hurt as much) and I just have a feeling Speed is the kind of guy who wants to race hard and stay up front if he can. However, a frequent trend towards the end of 2009 was that he would get a fast qualifying lap but quickly fall to the rear of the field once the race began, and that could happen again on Thursday.
I believe Mike Bliss has the best chance to race his way in. That team has a year's worth of experience now, and Bliss is among the most underrated drivers in all of nascar. Unless they have some type of problem, it would be hard to keep him out of one of the top two spots in this race. So, if Speed drops back, who gets the other spot? That one is very much up in the air. The most likely candidates are Casey Mears, David Gilliland, and Aric Almirola, and it is hard to pick a favorite among that group. The remaining four drivers who don't stand much of a chance (barring a big wreck) are Blaney, Cope, Mike Wallace, and Benning.
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