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Duel 1 win gives Kurt Busch Daytona pole

18 February 2011

Victory over Regan Smith in the first Gatorade Duel on Thursday gave Kurt Busch the Daytona 500 pole position that a practice wreck had cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. the day before.

Jeff Burton won the second Duel to complete, which means the front two rows of the grid will consist of Busch and Jeff Gordon, and then Smith alongside Burton.

The second Duel also saw impressive runs for Michael Waltrip and Brian Keselowski (older brother of NASCAR regular Brad), giving them starting positions for Sunday's Great American Race.

Duel 1 race report

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropping to the back of the field at the start of the first Duel race, as penalty for wrecking his race car in Wednesday's practice session, it was left to Ryan Newman to lead the cars to the green flag for the first of 60 scheduled laps.

Sadly for Newman, his time at the front was to be short-lived and he was turned into a spin by his Stewart-Haas team mate (and boss) Tony Stewart on lap 2 while they were still trying to sort out the rudiments of figuring out how to work together in the new era of two-car drafting on the new paving of Daytona.

Newman's spin brought out the first yellow of the afternoon although he managed to keep it off the wall and rejoined the field after pitting for new tyres. After the restart on lap 6, the Duel then ran caution-free for the next 50 laps, practically the full distance of the event.

Mark Martin hooked up with Tony Stewart for the restart and quickly got the better of Paul Menard who had led the field to the green flag. Th two of them pulled out a 1.7s lead and could be heard radioing each other directly, arranging strategy for the race to come. Both cars seemed to have problems with overheating after NASCAR's on-the-fly changes to limit racing speeds in in temperatures reaching 20C, the highest racing conditions seen at Daytona so far this week. Martin was on the radio expressing his concern about the engine temperature, and Stewart's car was soon steaming water out of the car, so on lap 13 it was Kevin Harvick who moved to the lead with an assist from Matt Kenseth.

Also forming an effective combination were Kurt Busch and Regan Smith, and by working together they were soon in a position where Busch and Harvick were trading the race lead back and forth. As the race passed the 20 lap mark, it was the turn of Juan Montoya and Kasey Kahne to team up and take a turn up front. The lead was exchanged back and forth between this group of drivers - by the end of the race there would be 21 lead changes on the books, a record for the Duels since the event length was raised from 125 to 150 miles in 2005 that would be quickly topped by Duel 2's 22 lead changes.

That put the race into pit stop territory, and the majority of the field came in together on lap 39, with most drivers opting to take fuel only, although Tony Stewart wanted some right side tyres to go with the gas. After the pit stops shook out, Matt Kenseth was in the lead followed by his drafting partner Kevin Harvick and then Kasey Kahne and Juan Montoya followed by Regan Smith and Kurt Busch, who looked to be suffering from a worrying increase in engine temperature.

The leaders were having to deal with slower traffic as the race entered its final 5 laps, and Kenseth and Harvick looked set to fight it out between themselves for the race win, when fate intervened in the form of an engine blow-up for Michael McDowell on lap 56 that brought out the second caution of the event. That jumbled up the running order, as drafting partners now found themselves having to take the restart alongside each other rather than running line astern, which confused matters while everyone tried to get themselves into the right position to undertake the remaining two-lap dash to the chequered flag.

The situation played out to the advantage of Kurt Busch and Regan Smith, and Busch held on to the lead over an overheating Smith to claim his second win of the week - a clean sweep of the races he has competed in at Daytona so far in 2011. If he were to win on Sunday, he would become the first driver in NASCAR history to win the Budweiser Shootout, a Gatorade Duel and the 500 in the same year.

On the podium, Busch praised and thanked his drafting partner - "To be in those positions you've got to have the right drafting partner and I had that today with Regan Smith" - and also to his team for "a great race car".

Duel 2 race report

Half an hour later and Jeff Gordon was leading rookie Trevor Bayne to the green flag for the start of the second Duel. Gordon tried to organise a hook-up with Bayne, but it didn't ome together and the two quickly fell out of the top ten.

Instead the lead was picked up by the pairing of Richard Childress Racing team-mates Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton, with Jamie McMurray moving up to third with the help of Kyle Busch before the first caution of the race came out on lap 3 for a blown engine in Casey Mear's Toyota.

Racing resumed on lap 6 with the same pairings quickly forming and taking the front four positions. The higher temperatures and speed-sapping regulation changes were having an interesting effect on the field, making it slower to run the outside line and hence resulting in more cars running low lines than had been seen during Saturday's Shootout.

Kyle Busch briefly took the lead on lap 10, then it was Carl Edwards' turn on lap 13 with an assist from Greg Biffle, before Jeff Gordon returned to the top spot having finally sorted out the parameters of his drafting deal with Trevor Bayne. Gordon was leading when the second caution of the afternoon came out, triggered by Joey Logano hitting the wall and sliding through the grass on lap 15.

Pit stops duly ensued, with most drivers opting for fuel-only but Martin Truex Jr. one of those to opt for fresh rubber as a side order. Carl Edwards led the restart on lap 20 and Clint Bowyer briefly took over before Jeff Gordon returned to the front on lap 25: Gordon had opted to stick with his drafting arrangement with Bayne and turned down the chance to pair up with Kyle Busch, who was left without a partner and who consequently dropped to the rear of the top ten runners.

The Gordon/Bayne pairing seemed to temporarily lose steam and were usurped at the top by a new combination of Truex and Denny Hamlin on lap 27, but it was a short-lived arrangement and the two managed to become detached and suffered for it with a rapid move down the running order. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle briefly bubbled to the front, and then it was back to the Jeff Burton/Clint Bowyer pairing before Gordon and Bayne got back in form and returned to the front on lap 37.

The third caution of the afternoon came out shortly afterwards on lap 39 when Brad Keselowski got loose while drafting and slide through the grass, doing minimal damage on the way but sending him to pit road for some running repairs. That changed Brad's focus from any thought of winning the race and more directed toward working with his older brother Brian and pushing him into a qualifying position in the remaining laps, finally managing to propel him to 5th by the finish.

Racing resumed on lap 43 with Jeff Gordon leading the field to the green flag, neatly managing to time his pull down in front of Trevor Bayne to reconnect the drafting arrangement for the final remaining laps. But it was not enough, and instead it was Edwards and Biffle who took control, battling to stay ahead of Burton/Bowyer - over the radio, Burton could be heard giving detailed heads-up information about his actions to Bowyer and the two were working beautifully together, seemingly biding their time before making a decisive move on the lead.

Further back, Kyle Busch had hooked up with Denny Hamlin but the pairing pushed that little bit too hard and Hamlin was sent into a spin trying to avoid going below the double-yellow boundary line, bringing out the fourth caution of the race on lap 46. Racing resumed on lap 49 with an urgent shuffling to resume draft pair formations, Carl Edwards coming out flying to maintain the top spot with Biffle, but Burton and Bowyer soon applying the pressure to run neck and next for the lead.

With six laps to go, a fifth and final caution came out for a wreck involving Todd Bodine and Steve Wallace - taking Bodine out of the running for a starting spot on Sunday, while Wallace was already locked-in thanks to a deal transferring him the owners' points from San Hornish Jr's 2010 campaign. The double-file restart put partners Burton and Bowyer alongside each other at the green flag and the duo had to time their move precisely to resume normal drafting formation without giving Edwards and Biffle the opportunity to slip past the clinch the lead again.

The move was perfection, and Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer were able to open up an unassailable lead over the remanding the laps, Burton then just managing to see off a last minute surge from Bowyer to claim the second Duel victory in a photo-finish.

Further back a number of cars had a last lap wreck: and it was triggered by Jeff Gordon hitting the wall coming out of the final corner, which then caught up a number of cars following close behind that included his rookie drafting partner Trevor Bayne and Roush Fenway's David Ragan. Gordon's car will have to be repaired between now and Sunday or else like Earnhardt Jr. he runs the risk of being put to the back of the field for the start of the Daytona 500.

Full details of times for both Gatorade Duels are available in the results section.


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