DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - What mattered most during Thursday's Gatorade 125-mile qualifying races were victories by Jeff Gordon and Michael Waltrip.
What might prove to be the most lasting effect, however, was the fact that Gordon led all 50 laps in his race; Waltrip led the final 44 of his race.
No last-lap passes. No last-lap drama. And for those who weren't the leaders, no last-lap hope.
"Whoever's going to be out front (for the Daytona 500) is going to be there (at the finish)," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who couldn't get around Gordon during the final 40 laps of his race. "It's such an easy drive for the guy out front. There's got to be a way to pass the leader. There's got to be a way. I'm tired of racing like hell to finish second."
Earnhardt finished second to Tony Stewart on Sunday in the Budweiser Shootout all-star race after he was unable to pass the leader in the final 24 laps.
Even Gordon, who earned $52,112 and earned the third-starting spot for Sunday's Daytona 500, was forced to admit the obvious.
"I don't think there were as many lead changes as they would like to see. You could pass from second on back. But it seems like it was extremely hard to pass the leader - more so than I've seen in the past."
Thursday's races, which determined 28 of the 43 starting positions for the Daytona 500, were diverse. The first was conservative without any mishaps. Gordon started on the outside pole, and he quickly shot to a lead that he never relinquished. Earnhardt Jr. and Ken Schrader worked their way up to second and third, respectively, after 10 laps, and they remained there until the end 40 laps later.
"Looking back, there's nothing we could have done to change the outcome," Schrader said. "He was the car."
The second race, while it had no lead changes in the final 44 laps, had a couple of crashes and a lot of shuffling in the lead pack. For example, Stewart went from second to sixth and back to second in a three-lap span.
And while he managed to run side by side with Waltrip early in the race, actually leading for three laps, he couldn't mount a charge once Waltrip got in front for good on the seventh of 50 laps.
"I won because I had a good car," Waltrip said. "Believe me, I had to work hard for it. When you race at Daytona, you look out the windshield to line the car up, but you race by watching your mirror. You have to drive defensively here, do whatever it takes to win."
Stewart offered a small ray of hope, saying he believes there is a way to pass a leader. He wouldn't say how, but made this bold comment:
"We've got something for Sunday. I can promise I won't let it be stagnant all day. We are going to control our own destiny. We can race with them."
Stewart said an important factor to remember before deeming the Daytona 500 dull before it even starts is the main event will have 43 cars. The lead pack will have as many as 10 cars, and it's not likely everyone will be content with riding along in single file.
"I'm concerned the media will portray this Sunday as a race where you can't pass the leader," he said. "There will be more good cars up front on Sunday that can help you make a run at the leader. We had a couple chances (at passing Waltrip) today and we missed it."
The front row for the Daytona 500 of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick was determined in pole qualifying Saturday. The next 28 positions went to the 14 highest finishers from each qualifier, excluding Johnson and Harvick. Six more spots went to the highest qualifying speeds still not in the race, while the final seven positions were allotted to provisional exemptions based on last year's point standings.
The crash in the second qualifying race eliminated several top drivers for Sunday's main event. Jimmy Spencer, Buckshot Jones and Hut Stricklin each failed to met any of the qualifying standards and were sent home.
In the first race, Johnson dropped to the middle of the pack early in the race. He lost two laps after being black-flagged twice for passing below the yellow line. In position already secured, he pulled off the track and finished last, nine laps down.
Gordon averaged 183.674 mph.
Ricky Rudd followed the front threesome of Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Schrader. Terry Labonte was fifth, followed by Sterling Marlin in sixth, Kurt Busch in seventh, Mike Wallace in eighth, Ward Burton in ninth and Dale Jarrett in 10th.
Waltrip averaged 131.965 mph. His race was slowed by two cautions that lasted 13 laps. Although eight cars were damaged, none of the drivers were injured.
Stewart finished second in the second qualifier, followed by Jerry Nadeau in third, Harvick in fourth, Bobby Labonte in fifth, Robby Gordon in sixth, Dave Marcis in seventh, John Andretti in eighth, Kenny Wallace in ninth and Mike Skinner in 10th.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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