Unlike seasons past, the path to making the starting grid for the biggest stock car race in the world is easy: Just don’t finish last.
With 45 entries and only 43 spots, the real strategy is to be safe and smart since there’s a greater reward for those who don’t take any risks.
Even with a less-frantic practice session on Wednesday, staying out of trouble still proved to be difficult.
Ryan Newman spun in the first practice, collecting cars driven by Carl Edwards and Mark Martin. All three teams worked the rest of the day making repairs to be ready for the first green flag today at 1 p.m. (SPEED).
Later in the session Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski had engine problems.
NASCAR dropped its top 35 rule that created automatic exemptions into each race for drivers ranked in the top 35. The lineup for Sunday’s race now will be determined by a combination of pole qualifying, duels results and car owner points.
Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon secured their spots on the front row in qualifying. The next 30 spots will go to the 15 highest-finishing drivers in each of the Duel races. After that, the top four qualifying speeds that still aren’t in, qualify for the 500 and the final spot is reserved to a former series champion.
“We have a simple plan: be cautiously aggressive,” said Wally Rogers, crew chief for Scott Speed.
The accident early Wednesday convinced 20 teams to stay in the garage area for the afternoon practice.
“There’s no reason to make any stupid moves,” Austin Dillon said. “We’re starting eighth (in the second Duel). We want to stay in that lead pack and stay out of trouble. We don’t want to get in the back.”
Patrick will start on the pole in the first qualifying race. Trevor Bayne will be second, followed by Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Earnhardt.
Gordon will be first in the second 150-miler, followed by Newman, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Michael Waltrip will start 16th in the first Duel, but crew chief Tony Eury Jr. isn’t concerned. In fact, he’d be happy if Waltrip finished 16th today – and in one piece.
“No accidents,” Eury said. “We have to be smart. Our biggest deal is to run a conservative race. There are two or three cars off the pace a little bit so it should be an easy feat. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. The key is to finish.”
Kenseth skipped the final session. He was involved in a multi-car accident last Friday while preparing for the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race, so his team skipped the final practice.
“It was self-induced,” he said.
Another reason to take it easy is teams don’t have a lot of cars. It’s been difficult for teams to get ahead because the demand for parts from the manufacturers and rear deck lids from NASCAR has exceeded the supply. Some teams already are down to their last car.
While the majority of teams will work harder to stay out of trouble, some will use the qualifying race as a dress rehearsal for the Daytona 500.
“To me, the Duels are the most important part of the week,” Kenseth said. “You go out there and that’s your first test in real race conditions. You try to make some moves, try to run with some people and maybe gain their trust that you have a fast car.”