Gatorade Duel qualifying format like a giant jigsaw puzzle

2/13/2008 - NASCAR

Strategy for the Gatorade Duel qualifying races Thursday depends on where a driver falls in the Sprint Cup food chain.

The game plan for some is desperation: "Gotta get to the front."

For others, it's preparation: "Let's see how this hot rod works in the draft."

And for many, it's salvation: "Just don't wreck my ride."

For the fans, it's confusion: "So which guys got in?"

Different agendas are happening at the same time while some drivers try to make the field for the Daytona 500.

But it takes a program, a rulebook, a stat list and a little knowledge of each participant to figure out who falls into each category.

Drivers fortunate enough to have a car ranked in the top 35 in 2007 owners points don't have to sweat it. They have a guaranteed spot in Sunday's Daytona 500 even if they wreck on the first lap of their 60-lap qualifying race.

Travis Kvapil in the No. 28 Ford is one of those. He falls in the preparation category.

"Hopefully we can get out there and work on our handling package to get the car to drive comfortable and stable," Kvapil said. "Then we'll worry about what we think we can apply for Sunday."

It's nice to be safe. Rookie Patrick Carpentier doesn't have that luxury. He falls in the desperation category.

"Nothing in my racing career has ever come easy for me," Carpentier said. "So I didn't expect qualifying for the 500 to be easy, either. We will go out there on Thursday and do our best; that's all we can do. It's going to be very stressful."

Then you have guys who know they have a strong car and just want to avoid the carnage that's lurking around every turn when some drivers are pushing the limits to earn a spot in the 500.

Pole winner Jimmie Johnson falls into the salvation mode, making sure his car stays clean out in front of the pack.

"We're in a great position not to have to take any risks," Johnson said. "It definitely takes the heat off us."

The qualifying races will set the field for the 500, but it's easier to solve the mysteries of the universe than figure out who's in and who's out in the preposterously complex qualifying format for this race.

We'll try to boil it down for you. Of the six spots still available, Joe Nemechek and David Reutimann are assured of landing two of them, based on their Pole Day speeds.

The top two finishers in each Duel among the nonqualified drivers earn spots. If Nemechek or Reutimann is one of those, it opens up a spot for someone else, because two drivers make it in on lap speeds from Pole Day.

Confused yet? Even some drivers don't get it.

Apparently, simplifying this system makes too much sense. Important things are happening in both races, but it's almost impossible to know for sure what they are while the cars circle the track.

Putting all the guaranteed drivers in one Duel and all the go-or-go-homers in the other certainly would increase the drama and make it easier for the fans to know immediately who earns a spot in the field.

Place the top 35 drivers -- and Michael Waltrip for his front-row effort -- in the first race. Fans would see most of the top guys go at it and get a glimpse of who has the edge heading into the 500.

Have the 17 other drivers take the track in the second Duel for a 60-lap sprint to earn the other eight spots. Finish in the top eight or go to the house. Now that's a qualifying race worth watching.

An even better idea would be to eliminate the top-35 rule and make every driver earn a spot. It's only wishful thinking, of course. Neither option is coming anytime soon.

We're left with the Rubik's Cube of qualifying. Get out your slide rule and start ciphering.

The final spot of the starting grid goes to a past Cup champion -- either Kurt Busch, Dale Jarrett or Bill Elliott. As the most recent champ, Busch gets it if he needs it. Jarrett and Elliott hope he doesn't.

This is Jarrett's last Daytona 500. As a three-time winner and one of NASCAR's most respected competitors, no one wants to see his car on the DNQ list.

Jarrett was 21st on speed among the 53 cars that posted laps on Pole Day. Nine out of 10 races, that's good enough. Not this time.

Seven drivers in each Duel don't have a guaranteed spot. Ten of them are going home Thursday night.

Not good odds, but at least every driver has a chance to race his way into NASCAR's biggest event. The drivers may not understand all the details, but that much they know.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.