Kasey Kahne won a drag race off the final corner to beat Tony Stewart to the finish line by 0.014 seconds in the second of two Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races Thursday at Daytona International Speedway - and that was the second-closest finish of the afternoon.
In the first Duel, Jimmie Johnson - driving a backup car and electing to stay out on old tyres - edged Kevin Harvick by 0.005 seconds as the field was set for the Sunday's Daytona 500, the season-opening points race for NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
By virtue of his finish, Johnson will start from the third position in Sunday's race, with Kahne beside him in the fourth position on the grid. Harvick nailed down the fifth starting spot with his runner-up finish in the first Duel, and Stewart will take the green flag in sixth position.
Polesitter Mark Martin (21st in the first Duel) and second-place starter Dale Earnhardt Jr. (21st in the second Duel, after damaging the body of his car) claimed their positions on the grid in last Saturday's time trials.
For Johnson, the four-time defending Cup champion, fighting to hold the lead on old tyres was an adventure. Even as he took the chequered flag at the end of a four-lap green-flag run to the finish, Johnson wasn't sure the race was over.
“Really didn't know how many laps we had left,” Johnson said, speaking in staccato sentences. “I was hopeful it was going to be done soon. My spotter wasn't really sure. As I went by the start/finish line sideways, I looked up and hoped that it was the chequered, because I felt like I was going to spin out. I stayed on the gas, saved it. Everybody else let off around me. I knew the race was over.
“Certainly an exciting final few laps. With the car on older tyres, the push I was getting from the RCR (Richard Childress Racing) cars and from the 18 (Kyle Busch), when they get close to the rear bumper of my car, literally would start turning the wheel to the right to save it. It stuck. Didn't turn around on me.
“Thankful I made it back. I think we put on one heck of a race.”
With finishes in the first race of 14th and 15th, respectively, Michael McDowell and Max Papis grabbed the two transfer spots into the 500 available to drivers forced to race their way into NASCAR's most prestigious event. A casualty of the first Duel at the 2.5-mile superspeedway was Michael Waltrip, who was in danger of seeing his streak of 23 straight Daytona 500 starts end after a hard crash into the inside wall on lap 53.
Waltrip's fortunes, however, took a major turn for the better when Scott Speed, the second-fastest qualifier in last Saturday's time trials among drivers not locked into the field, passed Casey Mears for the second transfer position in the second Duel, thereby putting Waltrip into the 500 based on his fifth-best qualifying speed among go-or-go-home drivers.