Race for The Show key to Duels' beauty

Updated: February 17, 2006, 9:13 AM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Explaining Daytona 500 qualifying procedures is as hard as explaining, well, NASCAR -- with its bump drafting and aero-pushes. But amid the splintered process, numerous rules and even more numerous exceptions to the rules, there are the Duel 150s. The greatest style of qualifying in all of NASCAR.

In each of the two qualifying races there are a handful of drivers, few of them with secure full-time rides and even fewer who are NASCAR stars, that are racing each other for a last shot at making the Big Show by claiming one of only two transfer spots in each of the qualifying sprints.

The teams pour months of effort and barrels of money into this one shot. It's the only time you see a racer sport a dung-eating grin for finishing 16th. It's the only time in NASCAR you see someone race so spiritedly just to make a race that they have no business believing they can win.

"It's the Daytona 500," Kevin Lepage said simply. And in those words, he said it all. The Great American Race is a thrill just to race in, and the Duel 150s are a thrill because you get to see a dozen drivers, most not spoiled by big-money sponsors or any sense of entitlement, race for four invitations, in total, to compete in NASCAR's Super Bowl.

"The guys have been so nervous the last few months worried about the Daytona 500," said Robby Gordon, who last year finished 10th in one of the qualifying races, but because he was third out of the guys fighting for the transfer spots he still missed the race. His renewed sense of wonderment after making this year's Daytona 500, something which he took for granted before leaving a well-funded three-car operation to try driving for himself, was indicative of what it means to a driver just to qualify for this race.

"Now we're in the Daytona 500," he said.

"If you ever wonder if this race is important," said driver Jamie McMurray, who has always been secured a spot in the 500 field through owner's points, "then just ask the guys out there racing their butts off just to make it in the race. It means a lot to them."

Just look at the guys who didn't make this year's race. Talk to Mike Skinner and Derrike Cope, who finished 18th and 19th, directly behind the two racers, Lepage and Bill Elliott, who got the transfer positions. Or ask Kenny Wallace or Scott Riggs, who finished 34th last year and would've just gotten an automatic berth into the race if he hadn't joined a new owner and started the season with no 2005 points to fall back on.

No one would argue that any of the four drivers are favorites to win a championship. But Riggs is with Ray Evernham's team and poised to have a successful season. Skinner and Wallace are former Cup regulars. Cope is a former Daytona 500 champion.

None of them gets to dance on Sunday, though. But they sure raced like hell over the final laps on Thursday.

"I hate it," Riggs said. "Definitely not the position we thought we'd be in."

NASCAR has come under criticism for adopting a brand of points racing which has taken some of the thrill out of winning. Drivers deny it, but there's no denying that the mandatory media interviews and sponsor photos right after a win has dimmed the thrill at least a little.

But the qualifying races are a different story. It's impossible to bring down a team, whose sole reason for working every day the past two months was to simply qualify for a race, when they finally reach that goal. Even when you tell them they've got little shot to win the race.

"You never know," Lepage said. "Besides, we're in the race."

And on this day, that is what's most important.

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.

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