Tony Stewart made sure there was no repeat of Saturday's last corner defeat in the Shootout, and duly claimed victory in the first of Thursday afternoon's Gatorade Duels, the 60-lap heats that determine the starting grid for this weekend's Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup season opener.
He was helped by the race coming to a slightly premature end when there was a heavy crash just after the white flag had come out. The crash started when Aric Almirola reacted to Jamie McMurray getting slightly unstable: Almirola struggled to hold the car and knocked into Danica Patrick's #10 car running underneath and slightly behind him. Patrick's car was sent shooting through the infield apron and into a high speed head long crash with the inside wall that totally wrecked the car.
Patrick herself was unhurt and walked away from the wreck, although she did appear understandably stunned by the force of the impact. "You just kind of brace yourself and in these situations be glad that I'm a small driver and that I've got room and just kind of hug it in and let her rip," she told reporters after being checked out and cleared by the medical centre.
As Patrick was already pre-qualified for the race due to owners points acquired in a deal with Tommy Baldwin Racing, the biggest blow for Patrick was that her car is a write-off and she'll have to take to a back-up on Sunday. "I'm really just bummed out that we didn't finish the last two corners," she told reporters afterwards.
Her crew chief Greg Zipadelli conceded that "It just sucks ... It puts us behind," but there was no question in Zipadelli's mind that Patrick had been completely blameless for the accident.
"She did what she was supposed to do," he said. "She wasn't doing anything wrong riding around the bottom ... I never saw her car move. But I saw a lot of grown men who couldn't keep their car under control. So maybe they need to work on that."
Patrick's accident had been the third of that opening Duel, with the first coming on lap 9 when Michael McDowell got into the back of David Gilliland and spun the #38 into the outside wall, also involving Juan Montoya and Paul Menard in the wreck. McDowell was able to continue and ended up finishing in sixth place, securing himself a place on the Daytona 500 starting grid alongside Robby Gordon, his fellow qualifier from the first Duel; but Gilliland, Montoya and Menard will all have to take to their back-up cars for Sunday's race, and like Patrick will now be sent to the back of the field for the green flag.
The second accident of the day involved two-time former Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, who spun on the transition from apron to banked race track coming out from a late splash and dash on lap 52. His wreck put him out of the Daytona 500, and also meant that the race did not end as expected as a fuel conservation affair but instead allowed everyone to pit for gas who needed to, while Tony Stewart stayed out and made the most of it at the restart. The late caution also closed up the pack so that some of those cars that had stayed toward the back - like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards - now had an opportunity to make a bid for the front.
Up to then, Denny Hamlin had led much of the race along with Marcos Ambrose, but their gamble of staying out of the pits at the first caution on lap nine cost them dear later on, and while Ambrose managed to work his way back up to third place by the time Patrick wrecked, Hamlin was not so fortunate and ended up a lap down.