Joe Nemechek and Bill Elliott know what it's like to miss the Daytona 500, so it was no surprise how happy they were on Saturday after making the field for next Sunday's Great American Race.
Elliott, Nemechek and Scott Speed were the three fastest drivers not already guaranteed a starting spot in Saturday's qualifying, and thus they will take the green flag Feb. 14 at Daytona International Speedway.
With 35 drivers locked in based on 2009 owner points, the 43-car field is filled by two spots from each of the two 150-mile qualifying races next Thursday and then three spots from the time trials, with a final spot available to a past champion or the next fastest on speed.
Bobby Labonte can use a past champion's provisional, if needed. That meant that three drivers could breathe easier after qualifying on Saturday. Elliott, and Nemechek were fast enough that if they don't run well Thursday in the qualifying races, they can rely on their time-trial speeds for spots in the 500.
Elliott, who was fourth-fastest at 190.573 mph, wasn't much of a surprise. He did the same thing a year ago after missing the 2008 race.
"It's still always nerve-wracking because when you roll in here it's one thing, but once you do everything you've got to do (through inspection) and then you leave pit road on your qualifying run, it's a whole different world," Elliott said. "Two years ago there's no comparison (in this programme). Last year, (crew chief David) Hyder started turning things around about this time and I feel like last season was a tribute to the Wood Brothers and the way their team should be."
Speed, who qualified 13th out of 54 drivers, said that knowing he is in the race will allow him to be less conservative on Thursday than he would be if he had to try to race his way into the Daytona 500 field.
He said he wasn't too nervous for his qualifying lap, especially compared to his crew chief Jimmy Elledge.
"Jimmy Elledge and my guys were a lot more nervous than me," Speed said. "This is one of the only qualifyings of the year where a lot of the weight is off my shoulders. It's a chance for the guys to show what they can do."
Nemechek, who qualified 16th, was nervous, in part, because he owns his car. He is trying to run both the Nationwide and Cup series this year in his own equipment.
"It's definitely huge," Nemechek said. "To come down here and be so close and to miss it by a few thousandths (from time trials last year) was really disheartening. To come back and make it and be locked in the week before the 500 means a lot."