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Harris: New Rules Fuel Cool Duels

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 11 2010
Jimmie Johnson edges Kevin Harvick for the win in the first qualifying race at Daytona on Thursday. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson edges Kevin Harvick for the win in the first qualifying race at Daytona on Thursday. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Daytona Beach, Fla. – Wow! Give these guys a little extra horsepower and look what you get:

Victories by Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne by margins totaling 0.019-seconds in Thursday’s Gatorade Duels.

And the battles for the transfer spots – the two Daytona 500 starting positions up for grabs in each of the 150-mile qualifying races – were just as close.

NASCAR set up the drama by giving the drivers the biggest carburetor restrictor plate in nearly two decades, which meant they had more power and more throttle response.

In the opening race, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus showed the rest of the field they haven’t lost the touch that has taken them to four straight Sprint Cup championships.

Johnson, starting from the back of the field in a backup car after wrecking the front of his primary No. 48 Chevrolet in Wednesday’s practice, stayed on track while the rest of the contenders pitted under caution after Michael Waltrip crashed with eight laps remaining.

Somehow, despite worn tires that had him slip-sliding all over the 2.5-mile oval and almost sideways at the finish line, he held on to beat 2008 Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick by 0.005-seconds, which translates to about one foot.

The only closer finish in the Duels since electronic scoring was introduced in May 1993 came in 2001 when Mike Skinner beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 0.004-seconds.

“I didn’t know it was over,’’ Johnson said. “My spotter wasn’t really sure. As I went by the start/finish line sideways, I looked up and hoped that it was the checkered (flag) because I felt like I was going to spin out.

“I stayed on the gas (and) saved it. It stuck and didn’t turn around on me. Then everybody slowed down around me and I knew it was over.’’

The Duels are nonpoints races and don’t pay all that much. The only real benefits for the winners was earning a second-row starting spot and getting a good pit stall in Sunday’s 500-mile race. But Johnson was thankful for the win, particularly because his first win of any kind in a plate race since the Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007.

“This helps me a lot with my confidence,’’ Johnson said. “I hope (this) says that we can win the Daytona 500, and to take us seriously. I don’t think I’ve been proving myself in that regard on track since the CoT has been around. We ran well in the July race here last year. But, outside of that, we’ve been looking for a variance in the setup. I’ve been trying to understand the draft better. I think things are coming together.’’

Harvick held off Kyle Busch for the runner-up spot, with Clint Bowyer and Regan Smith close behind.

Michael McDowell and Max Papis, the only other driver to stay on track during the final caution, finished 14th and 15th, earning starting spots in the 500, temporarily knocking two-time Daytona 500 winner Waltrip out of the lineup. Todd Bodine raced McDowell and Papis hard throughout the race in Kirk Shelmerdine’s entry, but came up short at the end, finishing 17th.

After the race, a sad Waltrip said, “We gave it all we had and came up short. Daytona always has made me really happy or really sad. I guess that’s what happens when you love something.’’

He then went off to his TV gig with SPEEDTV to wait and wonder if Scott Speed or Bobby Labonte could qualify in the second race and get him back into the field on his qualifying speed from last Saturday.

The second 60-lapper was a bit calmer than the first, but ended the same way, with two long freight trains of cars roaring past the finish line side-by-side.

In the second-race, Kahne hung close to the front, watching a number of drivers, including Juan Pablo Montoya, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Brian Vickers and Stewart all take turns in the lead before pulling alongside Stewart with two laps to go and holding on to beat the two-time Cup champion to the line by 0.014-seconds – about three feet.

“It was really exciting throughout the race,’’ said Kahne, who has yet to win a points race at Daytona. “My car was really loose at the start. Once I got behind Tony, I felt I was in the right position to make a move. Once Kurt (Busch) gave me a push in (turn) one, I was able to get past Tony and stay in front.

“I feel like we still have a few things we can do to make our car better. The track changed a little from last week to this week and I figure it will change even a little more before Sunday. We need to get a little more out of our car to have a shot to stay up front and, hopefully, be there at the end.’’

Montoya finished third, followed by Kurt Busch, Elliott Sadler, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano.

A lot of the attention in the second Duel was on the battle among Speed, Labonte, Mike Bliss and Casey Mears, all racing for the two transfer spots into the 500.

In the end, Bliss finished 13th and Speed, putting an emotional Waltrip back into the big race, was 14th.

“I’m real glad for Michael,’’ Speed said. “He’s a guy who deserves to be in this race.

“It was fun out there,’’ he added. “With these bigger restrictor plates, the corners are a little bit more like corners for us. It’s going to make the racing (Sunday) interesting, for sure. I think most people were taking it easy today.’’

As for Waltrip, he said, “I know for some reason, for me, this place, it defines my career. It certainly is my first memories of NASCAR racing, was coming here as a kid.

“I figured when I woke up this morning I’d be crying before the day was over. I just didn’t know if it would be because I was happy or because I was sad. And then I damn sure didn’t know it would be both within an hour of each other.’’

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 11 2010
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