If you want to know how the two qualifying Duel races at Daytona will unfold, given a greater emphasis on protecting the race car, prepare for a different answer every time you ask.
“I can’t speak for the whole field on what they’re thinking, but I don’t see myself racing any different in the Duel than I will in the (Daytona) 500,” says Joey Logano. “I’m planning to go race. I think as soon as you get scared of crashing and those types of things, you’re never going to win. So, I’m going to go race and if we crash, so be it, we’ll figure it out.”
The motivation is different for every team Thursday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1). Some want to be as conservative as possible, knowing that making it to Sunday and having a shot at winning the Daytona 500 is all that matters. Others want a decent starting position – or earn a starting position, in the case of those without a charter. Some view it as the first chance to earn points, since the Duel awards points to the top-10 finishers.
Darrell Wallace Jr. of 23XI Racing has a Logano mentality. Wallace says while you have to be smart, he doesn’t want to start changing the way he races because that’s when problems happen.
“For us, we treat it as any other Speedweeks,” says Wallace.
Logano’s teammate at Team Penske views things differently. Ryan Blaney believes drivers will be “pretty smart” about how they race because the biggest factor is the inventory challenges that the teams face. Daytona is the official debut of the Next Gen race car, and Daytona is notoriously harsh on a team owner’s wallet.
But teams don’t have a full fleet of cars. Some didn’t bring backups to Daytona, or they aren’t enough backups for each driver on a multi-car team.
“Everyone is kind of sitting in the same boat,” Blaney says of why he believes drivers will be conservative. “But, at the same time, you have teams that need to get in the 500 too, that are going be racing pretty hard at the end of the Duels to try to get in, so you just have to be aware and observant. But you don’t ever want to wreck your 500 car, let alone when we don’t have many things to spare.”
It all leads to a balancing act for drivers. Austin Dillon admits it’s hard to pick an approach and attack it, because how do you know if it’s the right one?
“So when it comes to when the green flag drops, it’s a feel thing, but you are still going to have this mentality built into your head that, ‘OK, you really would like to get this car to the 500,’” Dillon says. “Because if you don’t, it definitely sets you back for the next three races after this and going to the West Coast. I think it will be interesting to see how the Duels play out, because I think there are definitely some guys that are going to go for it, and there are some that aren’t. Then there are going to be some guys in the middle, and does the middle get you in trouble? It’s one of those things, and our goal is to take these cars to the 500 and try and get there.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of JTG Daugherty Racing and Erik Jones of Petty GMS Motorsports mention the need to learn in the Duel races. Not only to understand what their car can do, but because Next Gen handles differently in the draft than the previous iteration of race car.
“We just haven’t been in a big enough pack even at the test to know what these cars are going to do and how they’re going to drive in the draft,” says Jones. “There is going to be some point where we have to race in the Duel, learn about the car and go from there. It’ll be an eyes-wide-open type of deal. If anything gets really dicey or out of hand, we’re going to have to be extra-cautious. I don’t think us riding around by ourselves is going to be an option just because we do have to learn a little bit. But we definitely are going to err on the heavy side of caution.”
Hendrick Motorsports focuses on qualifying, and a Hendrick driver has won the Daytona 500 pole seven of the last eight years. Locking in the front row for Sunday’s race, as Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman did on Wednesday night, could allow a team to be conservative in the Duel races.
But emphasizing qualifying “typically translates to a car that’s not going to drive amazing in the Duels,” says Bowman. “Just trying to protect the race car the best we can, and put ourselves in the best position we can be for the 500. Obviously, it is a race, and it does pay points, but trying to protect the race car and be as smart as we can be.”
Last year, William Byron qualified on the front row and then crashed in his Duel race.
“I know my crew chief [Rudy Fugle] was very sad last year after the Duels,” says Byron. “So, try not to be quite as sad this year. Whatever that means.”