Commentary

Earnhardt, Hamlin, Jarrett, Toyota big winners in Daytona Duels

What did we learn from Thursday's Daytona 500 qualifying races? Junior is red-hot. Bill Elliott is not. Toyota is for real. And Dale Jarrett will get a shot at No. 4, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: February 15, 2008, 9:33 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Brian Vickers jumped out of a plane at 13,000 feet on Wednesday for the first time in his life.

Piece of cake. Well, compared to racing his way into the Daytona 500, as Vickers did Thursday.

[+] EnlargeDenny Hamlin
AP Photo/Terry RennaDenny Hamlin put Toyota in Victory Lane for the first time in the Sprint Cup Series.

It was a feel-good afternoon in the Gatorade Duels, topped with Dale Jarrett racing his way into his final Daytona 500. The happy moments were widespread.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. made it 2-for-2 with a victory in the first qualifying race. Kenny Wallace, getting another chance after losing his ride last year, sped his way into the field.

John Andretti was the surprise of the day, making a last-lap charge in the second Duel to earn a spot in the 500.

And for the first time in 54 years, a foreign manufacturer made it to Victory Lane in NASCAR's top series when Denny Hamlin won in his No. 11 Toyota.

Forget all that talk about Joe Gibbs Racing needing a transition period in its switch to Toyota. Tony Stewart finished second to his JGR teammate in the second Duel, proving that the Camry drivers can hang with the big boys on Sunday.

But Toyota's first win was overshadowed by its favorite son in Jarrett, the three-time Daytona 500 winner whom everyone wanted to see race at Daytona one last time.

Jarrett was hoping Kurt Busch would race to the front in the first Duel. Busch had the first champion's provisional, which would have gone to Jarrett if Busch had earned a spot in the Duel.

No such luck. Busch's No. 2 Dodge had a mechanical problem and limped to the garage on Lap 10.

Jarrett would have to earn that final 500 start. He needed to finish in the top two among the nonqualified drivers in the second Duel.

After a green-white-checkered overtime, Jarrett took ninth overall, but first among the go-or-go-homers. He made it in by beating the guys he had to beat.

"It is very gratifying," Jarrett said. "I went out there knowing what I had to do. I feel very good about what we were able to accomplish. Now the hard part is over with. We can tune up this baby and see what we can do this weekend."

Heading Home

Ten drivers are heading home after failing to qualify for Sunday's Daytona 500, none of those with a name bigger than Bill Elliott. The two-time Daytona 500 winner failed to race his way in, meaning a Wood Brothers car failed to qualify for the 500 for the third time in 50 years, after also missing the 500 in 1960 and 1962.

Jarrett, 51, is competing in the first five events in the No. 44 Toyota before following his father Ned's footsteps as a racing broadcaster

Like his father, Jarrett is a class act. So is Andretti. His first words on TV after qualifying Thursday expressed how happy he was for Jarrett.

"Dale is such great champion," Andretti said. "I'm probably more excited, or at least equally excited, about him making it in as me."

Andretti, 44, has raced in 12 Daytona 500s, but the last one was three years ago. He was a huge long shot to get in this time, but Andretti had a stunning final lap.

He put the pedal to the floorboard heading into the tri-oval and passed five cars to earn the second transfer spot, finishing 10th in the No. 34 Chevy, one spot behind Jarrett.

"I was driving my guts out," Andretti said. "That last lap was everything. I was out of the [Daytona 500] until I came off Turn 4. I didn't expect to be here."

Neither did Kenny Wallace, but his eighth-place showing in the first Duel made him the top finisher among the nonqualified racers.

"I'm very grateful and a little shocked," Wallace said. "This is a real moral victory for me."

Wallace was driving a second car for the fledgling Furniture Row team that removed him as the driver last season.

"I guess they didn't really fire me because they kept paying me," Wallace said. "But they called me and said they made a mistake. They realized how bad their motors were last year."

Team owner Barney Visser is leasing engines from Hendrick Motorsports this season.

"This gave me a chance to show my talent with a Hendrick motor," Wallace said. "You've just got to have equipment, man. I wanted to go out today and prove it, and holy crap, I proved it."

Vickers proved something to his team by overcoming an early spin and a cut tire to earn the other transfer spot in the first Duel with an 11th-place showing in the No. 83 Toyota.

"Talk about adversity," Vickers said. "We had plenty of it today, but this Red Bull team overcame it. It's like I won the race. In fact, the last time I felt this good I did win a race."

Vickers said he would gladly sky dive any day compared to what he went through Thursday.

"Honestly, my heart rate and stress level today were higher than any point prior to jumping out of that plane," Vickers said. "Jumping out and seeing the ground coming at you is definitely an eye-opener. But it doesn't hold a candle to trying to make the Daytona 500 in one of these races."

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

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter