These Duels packing drama

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's always complicated at Daytona International Speedway.

The 150-mile qualifying races that set the field for the Daytona 500 should be no different.

A new aerodynamics package forcing drivers to adapt quickly to the handling of their race cars in massive packs, and more weight than ever on a Daytona 500 win with a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth, likely an added benefit should assure that.

All indicators were such on Wednesday as the first of two practices preceding the 150-mile qualifying races were marred by two crashes, the second a seven-car melee that sent rookie Parker Kligerman's No. 30 Toyota tearing a hole in the grandstand catch fence near the flag stand and then onto his roof.

Mayhem began in the Sprint Unlimited, in which another seven-car crash eradicated several quality cars. Jimmie Johnson, who spun out by himself in wrecking his No. 48 Chevrolet, said negotiating the risk and reward of the Duels is always a tough bargain.

"That's my perspective this year," he said. "When you get through the Unlimited and you have a straight race car sitting there, you're much more relaxed and [can] have fun and forget about things. But it will be weighing on my mind the whole race that we could lose that car and put ourselves in a big hole for the 500."

Two drivers -- Brian Vickers and Cole Whitt -- are already forced to a backup car for the Daytona 500 after the Wednesday incidents that also included Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Kligerman and Ryan Truex. Dave Blaney was attempting to acquire a backup car. That pack would drop behind Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Bobby Labonte, who undertook unapproved engines changes after blowing motors in practice on Saturday.

 

1. Freaks come out at night: Daytona 500 qualifying races will be held at night for the first time in the 55-year history of the format, with a cooling 2.5-mile track increasing the grip and speeds and, almost certainly, the list of wrecked race cars.

2. Kurt Busch might not make the Daytona 500: He probably will. He certainly should. Team owner Tony Stewart entered the Duels worrying how to ensure such on his mind even as he worries about his own performance.

But it's not a given. The problem: The 2004 Sprint Cup champion is operating without the benefit of a statistical safety net, as his No. 41 Chevrolet did not exist at Stewart-Haas Racing and is therefore devoid of 2013 owner points.

Busch, a three-time Daytona 500 runner-up, must finish in the top 15 of 24 drivers in Duel 2 to advance automatically or begin following scenarios involving other drivers. He starts 14th, with two former Daytona 500 winners ( Michael Waltrip, 17th, and Jamie McMurray, 19th) behind him. Busch could gain entry on qualifying time with the right cascade of circumstances, but he posted the 28th-best attempt. He could also gain entry with a past champion's provisional, but Stewart would be awarded it first -- if needed -- as a more recent titleist. With Stewart in the first Duel, Busch will know his path to the 500 better when he takes the green flag.

3. A recent Daytona 500 winner is in jeopardy, too: Trevor Bayne became the youngest Daytona 500 winner in 2011 when he captured the Harley J. Earl trophy one day past his 20th birthday. He's competed in the ensuing two, but a third is no guarantee.

The Wood Brothers' No. 21 Ford contested just 12 races last season, all with Bayne, and finished 41st in owner points. Like Busch, he could make the field on qualifying time but posted the 26th-best attempt. Being involved in the seven-car crash Wednesday slightly damaged the nose of the car.

"It's definitely a different Speedweeks for me right now," Bayne said. "Normally, here with the Wood Brothers, we qualify in the top 10 or so, even the top three a couple times, but we just had a bad headwind."

A top-15 finish in Duel 2 makes things simple and he starts, coincidently enough, on the same row with Busch at 13th.

4. Tony Stewart: In the Sprint Unlimited, the three-time series champion got his first wreck out of the way since breaking his leg last August, and he crawled out of his No. 14 Chevrolet without assistance. He continues to check boxes en route to his resumption of points racing, and the Duels should constitute the most realistic simulation yet.

5. Power up: Hendrick Motorsports engineers confirmed their initial diagnosis that the catastrophic engine failures of Bobby Labonte, Danica Patrick and Stewart were a results of an issue specific to its qualifying procedures, not a part.

That alleviated concerns of a company-wide malady that could impact not only Hendrick's customers -- Stewart-Haas Racing and Labonte's Phoenix Racing -- but its four-car fleet of defending series champion and Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne.

SHR had detuned the engines of Patrick and Stewart to ensure durability during qualifying on Sunday. With a subsequent 7 to 8 percent reduction, Patrick qualified 25th and Stewart 35th. Because of being penalized for illegal engine changes, they will have nothing to race for in the Duels but should have a reliable power plant under them.

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