In 2007, Toyota entered competition in NASCAR's top level, the Sprint Cup Series. Michael Waltrip Racing became the first team to bear the Japanese automaker's logo and Waltrip himself strolled into Daytona with confidence and two Daytona 500 wins in his back pocket. But the pressure of qualifying for the race proved to be too much. Waltrip, who was not locked in to the top 35 in owner's points from 2006, drove an illegal car during qualifying. When NASCAR inspectors removed the intake manifold from the engine in the No. 55 Toyota, they found an illegal fuel additive inside. While Waltrip denied any knowledge of the illegal substance, NASCAR officials confiscated his car and penalized him 150 drivers' points. Waltrip never rebounded during the 2007 season; in fact, he failed to qualify for several races throughout the year. His struggles, coupled with the 150-point deduction, proved too much to overcome.
Daytona 500 Qualifying: Setting the Grid
Now here's where the fun begins: Only the two fastest cars on qualifying day secure a spot on the grid. The two fastest are granted the pole position and the outside pole position. As we said before, cars that finished in the top 35 in owner's points during the previous racing season are also guaranteed a starting spot; however, the position that they will start the race in is not determined by qualifying speeds. Those drivers will fight for starting positions that are ultimately determined by where they finish in one of two 150-mile (60-lap) qualifying races called the Gatorade Duels -- formerly known as the Twin 125's, in years past.
The odd-numbered qualifiers (1st, 3rd, 5th and so on), taking into account where they finished the previous year, will start in the first Gatorade Duel along with the pole sitter; the even-numbered qualifiers (2nd, 4th, 6th and so on) race in the second Gatorade Duel along with the outside pole sitter who will, in this race, start from the pole position. So, with the exception of the first two spots, the starting grid for the Daytona 500 is determined by how the cars finish in the Gatorade Duels. But that's not the end of it.
A total of 66 cars can participate in the Gatorade Duels and two cars from each qualifying race will have the opportunity to race their way into the 500 by finishing in one of two transfer spots. Positions 3 through 39 are determined from the finishing order of the Gatorade Duel races with the two highest finishers in each race -- drivers not in the top 35 from the previous year -- earning starting spots in the Daytona 500. Two more positions are filled based on qualifying speed with the final spot going to the most recent past champion. Once all the spots are accounted for, the starting lineup is set based on the finishing order of the duel races.
So, are you still confused about how NASCAR sets the starting grid of 43 cars? It's not that complex once you see it broken down like this:
- Position 1 and 2 are the pole sitter and outside pole sitter from qualifying day. These two positions are based solely on qualifying speed. They do not need to be top 35 in owner's points during the previous season.
- Positions 3 - 39 are filled by the top 35 in the previous season car owner's points and the two highest finishing teams in each Gatorade Duel race that are not in the top 35.
- Positions 40 - 42 are filled with the next fastest qualifiers -- these positions are not based on the results of the Gatorade Duels.
- Position 43 is reserved for the most recent past champion that, for whatever reason, was unable to qualify (if applicable); otherwise the spot goes to the next fastest qualifier.
As you can see, speed matters; however, for most drivers, racing is what determines starting position in the Daytona 500. Fittingly, the most prestigious race in NASCAR demands the most from every team and driver.
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