Unique qualifying format adds pressure at Daytona 500

Updated: February 15, 2007, 2:36 AM ET
Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The qualifying format for the Daytona 500 is unique, confusing and a source of tremendous pressure for the drivers who have to race their way into NASCAR's biggest event.

The process gets under way Sunday with all 61 entries taking to the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway oval to post a qualifying speed that might help them earn a spot in the 43-car field for the Feb. 18 race.

"I know that Sunday's qualifying probably won't mean much for us," Kyle Petty said. "We're lucky because we know we're in the race. There's a lot of other guys who aren't so lucky."

Petty's No. 45 Dodge is among the entries that finished in the top 35 in car-owner points last season. Under NASCAR rules, those cars are guaranteed starting spots in the first five races of 2007. After that, the top 35 in the current standings each week will be locked in.

The 74-point margin by Petty over 36th-place Sterling Marlin last season meant the difference between calmly preparing for the season opener or, like Marlin and 23 other drivers entered in Daytona, sweating out the possibility of watching NASCAR's Super Bowl on TV from home.

Sunday's time trials lock in only the front row for the 500, with the two fastest drivers winning the pole and the outside pole. But everyone who posts a speed earns a starting spot in one of Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races.

Ricky Rudd, returning after a year off track, showed the way Saturday in a Robert Yates Racing Ford, leading both practice sessions and establishing himself as the pole favorite.

Rudd, who took over the No. 88 from Dale Jarrett, is guaranteed a spot in the race day field, while Marlin, third in the morning session and second in the afternoon, is not.

"Knowing how well we tested down here, the team didn't touch the car," said Rudd, who won the pole for the 500 in 1983. "We rolled it through tech when we ran fast in testing down here, so they just brought it back the way it was and it picked up where it left off."

Since the top 35 in points are guaranteed starting spots, only the top two nonqualified finishers in each race transfer to the big show. That gets the field up to 39.

Two-time 500 winner Jarrett, who moved to the new Michael Waltrip Racing team over the winter, has no points but is assured of starting as the most recent series champion entered. If he doesn't qualify any other way, Jarrett automatically would start 43rd.

If Jarrett does race his way in, two-time winner Bill Elliott could get the former champion's provisional spot. That leaves positions 40-42 -- or possibly 43, if Jarrett and Elliott earn a front-row start or race in -- for the remaining fastest drivers from Sunday.

Got it?

Well, don't worry. Even the guys trying to get into the race aren't real sure how it works.

"I'm going to try to run the fastest lap I can on Sunday and race on Thursday as hard as I can and then somebody will tell me if we made the race or not," said Kenny Wallace, who failed to make the lineup last February.

"It's devastating," Wallace said about missing last year's race.

The list of drivers who will vie for the open spots is impressive. It includes two former series champions, six Daytona winners with 10 wins among them -- Jarrett, Elliott, Marlin, Waltrip, Derrike Cope and Ward Burton -- and drivers who have totaled 75 Cup wins.

"I am definitely feeling the pressure," said Waltrip, a two-time 500 winner. "I feel it more now than I ever could have imagined. I have to qualify, and anything can happen, either good or bad."

Marlin, another two-time Daytona winner, was buoyed by Saturday's fast laps. He didn't sound too concerned heading into qualifying.

"We tested good here, I thought, and if everything goes good we should get in," he said. "But you've got to have an absolute perfect lap [on Sunday]."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press