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Monday, February 12, 2007

Break Out the Antacid

For a lot of teams Speedweeks this year is not very fun. Some very high profile, not to mention well-sponsored teams are not going make the Daytona 500. After single car qualifying, there are now 39 drivers locked in for next Sunday: the top 35 in owner points, Boris Said, Sterling Marlin and Johnny Sauter based on speed, plus Dale Jarrett's champion's provisional. Quick math shows there's only four spots left for the Daytona 500. Among the 22 teams on the bubble, nine have plans to run the entire schedule. Most have sponsorship, including prominent companies like NAPA, Dominos, Menards, and Red Bulll. At least five are leaving on Thursday. That means several teams will spend the next three days worrying and working on their cars to find more speed. It also means working on their answer to sponsors for why they missed NASCAR's highest profile race.

Is it possible that Thursday's Duel 150's could have more intrigue than Sunday's race? That's a stretch, but for a lot of teams it will set a tone for the season. Miss a race and it makes it much harder to enter the top 35 in points. Within the greater storyline to make the race, there are several smaller plots. Among the cars competing for the transfer spots, there are three formerDaytona 500 winners. Of the eight Toyota entries, only Jarrett and Dave Blaney have guaranteed spots. Two are certain to miss the race, but based on qualifying speeds, it will be more. Neither Toyota driver in the BudShooutout (Brian Vickers , Jarrett) did anything to show they are better in the draft than qualifying. Another problem is that one of the fastest Toyota's was Mike Skinner, a part-time entry. If Skinner makes the race, but teammate JeremyMayfield doesn't, how will Bill Davis handle that?

The two highest finishing drivers in each heat will make the race, with a few exceptions. If any of the three top qualifiers (Said, Sauter or Marlin) finish in the first two transfer spots, the next fastest qualifier makes the race, which is Jeremy Mayfield, then David Reutimann . The same would happen with the past Champion provisional. If Jarrett captures on the the transfer spots, then the provisional would fall to Bill Elliott.

Handicapping the field, Jeremy Mayfield is in good shape in Heat 1. Ward Burton and Bill Elliott have both won Daytona 500's, but can't overcome the limits of their cars. AJ Allmendinger has one plate race in the Truck Series and Team Red Bull is yet to qualify for a Cup race. It's a real long shot for Allmendinger. It is hard enough for a rookie to get drafting help, let alone a rookie with almost no stock car experience. Michael Waltrip's car was impounded after qualifying. Apparently it's not an infraction, but it does cost the team time that they can't work on the car.Waltrip is a good plate racer who is capable of hooking up with the right drafting partners. It's a big help to have his teammate Jarrett in his heat.

In heat 2, David Reutimann is a rookie, but has raced in 6 plate races in the Truck and Busch series. He was one of the fastest Toyotas and has the best chance of the Toyotas to make the field. DEI traditionally has stronger cars in race trim which should allow Paul Menard to compete better than his qualifying time suggests. JoeNemechek will hope for the same thing, and Ginn racing does have Hendrick power to boos that effort. Brian Vickers is a good plate racer but the Toyotas haven't been very strong so far. Unless he learned something on Saturday night, his chances do not look very good. The X factor as far as full-time teams are concerned is Mike Skinner. He has made two of the last threeDaytona 500's as a part time driver and was one of the quicker cars on Sunday.

All the preparation, speed and drafting partners still might not be enough. Scott Riggs had a mechanical issue during qualifying and then a problem in the pits cost him his chance in the 500. Menard suffered a flat tire in his heat last year. The unknown only adds more pressure and anxiety for the drivers leading up to Thursday afternoon. Obviously missing the first race is not a fatal blow, look at Riggs for exhibit A. The problem is there will be 12 full-time teams next week at California all trying to make the race all over again.

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