DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As if an hour-long rain delay wasn't enough to agitate the nerves of drivers waiting to see if they'd qualify for Sunday's Daytona 500, both of Thursday's Duel 150 qualifying races were dragged into overtime.
Late-race wrecks brought out cautions in each of the qualifiers just before the scheduled 60 laps were complete. After the races finished under a two-lap, green-white-checkered flag finish, Elliott Sadler claimed victory in the first Duel 150 and Jeff Gordon held on to win the second race.
"We didn't want to see that caution come out, but we held on," a revived Sadler said. Gordon was just as grateful to hold on over the final two laps, but he was more excited about riding a recent wave of success at Daytona, including winning last year's race and posting a fast enough lap during last week's time trials to guarantee a second-place start on Sunday.
"I definitely think we're one of the guys [to beat] with our track record here at Daytona," he said. "With the performance that we've got going for us already this week, I'd like to think that we're one of the favorites."
For Sadler, the victory got him off to the same start he had last season. That's good news, so long as that's where the similarities to the 2005 campaign end. After his 150 victory last year, Sadler failed to make the 10-race season-ending playoffs and finished 13th.
This year, though, Sadler says there's a different air about the team.
"From a mental standpoint, I think this team is more focused and more ready to go week-to-week racing," he said. "I think we've got a new attitude. We feel like we're all going into war together."
Sadler's win in the first Duel came after a frenzied final few laps.
Chad Chaffin blew a tire and hit the wall on the frontstretch on lap 58 of the 60-lap race. As the field slowed through Turns 3 and 4, they spilled onto a backstretch riddled with debris. Drivers hit the brakes and scattered, but Sterling Marlin was unable to check up in time to miss Dale Jarrett's car in front of him. The two hit and Marlin suffered damage, though it didn't affect his participation in Sunday's event because his team owner was among the top 35 last season and was guaranteed an invitation to race.
After the debris was cleared, Sadler led Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had fought a tight car to emerge from as far back as 20th place earlier in the race. Sadler worried that Junior, a consistent threat at superspeedways, was within striking distance and might steal the victory. But Edwards, running second, held Junior's advances off.
The more exciting racing was toward the back of the pack. The qualifying setup for the Daytona 500 is intricate and confusing, but the most pressure in the race is felt by those drivers who didn't post fast laps in time trials last week and whose teams didn't rank among the top 35 in last year's owner's points. For them, only the two highest finishers in each Duel will make the Show.
Kevin Lepage held on over the mad, two-lap overtime dash to finish 16th overall in the first Duel -- good enough for first among the cars not in last year's top 35 in car owner points. Bill Elliott finished 17th and second out of those not among last year's top 35. That left Mike Skinner and Derrike Cope out of the field. For Skinner, it snapped his string of nine 500 starts. For Cope, it meant skipping the race he won back in 1990.
Afterward, Lepage smiled with excitement and relief. And he credited a mid-race crew decision for the spoils.
"I wanted to come in and put tires on," he said. "I watched everybody else come in there at the end but [the crew] said, 'Look, stay out there, we'll be OK.' To be in the 500, the Great American Race
"This gets us going."
In the second Duel, all eyes were on Robby Gordon, Scott Riggs, and Mike Wallace. Indeed, the only thing to see up front was more of the same old Jeff Gordon at Daytona. Last year's 500 champ posted a qualifying lap last week that was good enough to secure him the No. 2 starting spot on Sunday. His participation in Thursday's 150 was largely ceremonial. Then he started first and finished first, losing the lead for 22 laps to teammate Kyle Busch before reclaiming the lead on lap 29 and cruising to Victory Lane.
"I didn't want to lose the lead there," he said. "I wanted to keep it if we could throughout the whole race. But it was great for us to get behind other cars and see what the car did in traffic because this is a test session for us."
Far behind Gordon, and in a much different situation, were Robby Gordon, Riggs and Wallace.
While Riggs was driving the No. 10, just like he did last season when he finished in the top 35, he is under new ownership and has no owner's points. And Riggs didn't have a fast qualifying lap to fall back on, either, because he had gear trouble which slowed him down. Early in the second Duel 150, it appeared as though Riggs would surmount the obstacles and sneak into the 500 field. He climbed from 27th to 15th quickly, dropped back briefly because of a pit crew error but then resumed his climb.
Riggs' prospects improved even more when J.J. Yeley made contact with David Stremme's No. 40 and went spinning through the backstretch grass.
With Gordon running among the top 10, that left Riggs in a battle with Wallace for the final qualifying spot into the 500 and Wallace's steady race won out in the end -- narrowly. Wallace finished 12th and Riggs 13th.
"We had the gear failure in the qualifying so we didn't get the time we needed and didn't get to the front when we needed to [today]," Riggs said. " That's the risk you [take when] you come down here with no points."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.