Daytona 500 Duels Preview: Qualifying for the Daytona 500

Daytona 500 Duels Preview: Qualifying for the Daytona 500

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

Speedweeks 2023 will get underway with lap-timed qualifying. However, as a part of the qualifications and events, NASCAR uses twin qualifying races to determine most of the starting grid for the Daytona 500. These two 150-mile qualifying races (60 laps each) set the odds and evens on the starting grid and give the fans a good taste of the action that will be coming their way the following Sunday. Most fantasy racing leagues don't recognize this heat race doubleheader in the fantasy racing season, but some do along with many daily fantasy racing games and racing pools that form specifically for the Duels. The competition is open to all NASCAR Cup Series teams who are entered for the Daytona 500. The Duels are how NASCAR determines which teams make the field for the Great American Race, and which teams have to pack up and head home because they didn't make the cut for the 40-car field.

NASCAR determines the pole position and outside pole position based on lap-time qualifying runs on the day prior (Wednesday). Once the front row is locked in after timed qualifying runs, the odds from timed qualifying make up the field of Duel 1 and the evens make the field of Duel 2. In last season's twin qualifying races, we had a field of 21 drivers in each of the two Duels. We should see similar, if not greater numbers this season. 

These twin qualifiers are unlike our normal NASCAR events due to the split field

Speedweeks 2023 will get underway with lap-timed qualifying. However, as a part of the qualifications and events, NASCAR uses twin qualifying races to determine most of the starting grid for the Daytona 500. These two 150-mile qualifying races (60 laps each) set the odds and evens on the starting grid and give the fans a good taste of the action that will be coming their way the following Sunday. Most fantasy racing leagues don't recognize this heat race doubleheader in the fantasy racing season, but some do along with many daily fantasy racing games and racing pools that form specifically for the Duels. The competition is open to all NASCAR Cup Series teams who are entered for the Daytona 500. The Duels are how NASCAR determines which teams make the field for the Great American Race, and which teams have to pack up and head home because they didn't make the cut for the 40-car field.

NASCAR determines the pole position and outside pole position based on lap-time qualifying runs on the day prior (Wednesday). Once the front row is locked in after timed qualifying runs, the odds from timed qualifying make up the field of Duel 1 and the evens make the field of Duel 2. In last season's twin qualifying races, we had a field of 21 drivers in each of the two Duels. We should see similar, if not greater numbers this season. 

These twin qualifiers are unlike our normal NASCAR events due to the split field and 150-mile sprint for a starting grid spot. It typically creates conservative racing among the favorites since you need to preserve that car for the Daytona 500, and it creates frantic racing among the teams not locked into the Daytona 500. Those drivers and teams are scrambling and taking risks for every spot they can grab in order to make the field for the Great American Race. For our statistical analysis, we've looked back at the past two seasons of superspeedway racing to get a feel for our top contenders this week.  Below are the statistics for the last eight Cup Series events on superspeedway ovals. These include Daytona and Talladega.    

DriverWins Top 5'sTop 10'sLaps LedAvg Finish
Austin Cindric 123369.8
Austin Dillon1342110.0
Bubba Wallace1335910.6
Ryan Blaney13410810.9
Chase Elliott1258312.4
Michael McDowell135313.8
Ryan Preece012914.0
Kevin Harvick0244915.0
Kyle Busch0135616.5
Brad Keselowski1238117.5
Aric Almirola0115217.8
Denny Hamlin02319617.8
Erik Jones0038018.0
Chase Briscoe012118.3
Martin Truex Jr.0122818.6
Noah Gragson011018.8
Ross Chastain1236319.0
Justin Haley0011219.1
Corey Lajoie001920.3
Joey Logano0119821.1

These twin qualifiers are unlike the typical Cup Series events, so we'll handle the prognostications a bit different as well.  We'll give you our picks for who'll contend for the win in either of the Duels. The fields will be set after lap-time qualifying (Wednesday, February 15) which is the day before the Duels, so you'll have to match up which driver competes in which race. 

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is a three-time winner of the Duels (2008, 2014 and 2017) and he is one of the more dominant superspeedway performers of this generation. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a three-time Daytona 500 winner and as recently as 2020. With well over 600-career laps led at Daytona International Speedway, you'll find few other drivers who know as well how to get around this place. Hamlin had a bit of a down season in terms of finishing these races in 2022, but he didn't miss running up front and leading laps. The veteran driver racked up 196 laps led between Daytona and Talladega the last two years, and that mark led all drivers. Hamlin was just missing the luck to close these races last season. It's a new year and renewed outlook for Hamlin and the No. 11 team. They know a Duel victory would be a big statement heading into the Daytona 500.

Ryan Blaney – The Penske Racing driver has been Ford's foil to Denny Hamlin on these big ovals the last few years. While Blaney was held winless last season, he still had great speed on these superspeedway tracks. He's racked up three Top-5 finishes and 108 laps led between Daytona and Talladega since 2021. Blaney is a one-time winner of the Duels (2018) and he finished a strong third-place in his Duel race of one year ago. In points races, the driver of the No. 12 Ford has one Daytona victory and two runner-up finishes over the years. Blaney has enjoyed a bit more success at the Talladega oval with two wins and one runner-up finish. What's interesting about that runner-up effort was that it came last October in Blaney's last and most recent superspeedway start.    

Chase Elliott – Elliott is one of the winningest drivers of the last five years (18 total) and in addition to that, he's won a couple Duels as well (2017 and 2018). The Hendrick Motorsports star has a good nose for superspeedway racing and has won two points events at Talladega, but none at Daytona. The shorter duration of these qualifying races seems to play to Elliott's strengths. The No. 9 Chevrolet nearly always has good speed on these big ovals, but he's had an inability to close the longer races at Daytona. The shorter Duels seem to suit Elliott better. After a bit of a whiff in the Clash at the Coliseum, you can bet this driver and team are ready to make a big impression at Daytona. Good starting track position in the Great American Race is up for grabs.          

Joey Logano – Logano is one of the more successful drivers in superspeedway racing in recent years. His one-career victory at Daytona and three-career victories at Talladega speak volumes of Logano's ability in this form of racing. The Penske Racing star has also won two Duels and finished runner-up twice in the Duels. All those finishes have been recent as well, coming since 2016. Logano and his No. 22 Ford team have been very proficient in superspeedway racing and always bring fast cars to Daytona to compete on this oval. He led 33 laps in last season's Duel and looked poised to capture the win in his first start at Daytona in the Next Gen car. However, Logano would get rolled up in a last-lap, multi-car accident that would take him out of the lead. He'll be motivated to make up for that disappointment.

Austin Cindric – Last season's Daytona 500 winner finished runner-up in his Duel race in the preceding days, foreshadowing his big win in the 2022 Great American Race. Cindric would try to reel-in Brad Keselowski in the closing laps in a dramatic four-car battle but would finish an impressive runner-up in his first-career start in the Duels. The Penske Racing star would go onto make history winning the Daytona 500 and producing strong results on the superspeedway ovals of last season. The driver of the No. 2 Ford returns to Daytona this week to defend his performance in the Duels and race win in the Daytona 500 of one year ago. It's very clear that Cindric understands racing in the draft, and has the means and good equipment of Penske backing him up. A good race car is not only anticipated, it's expected and Cindric will know what to do with it when the green flag drops. 

Austin Dillon – Dillon is a one-time winner of the Duels (2021) and he's finished inside the Top 5 of this qualifying race on three occasions. The Richard Childress Racing veteran is fresh off a strong runner-up performance in the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum and looking to ride that success into the exact opposite extreme of racing this week. Dillon has always been a strong performer at Daytona International Speedway. He's a two-time winner at Daytona, including one Daytona 500 victory, and Dillon cracks the Top 10 at this oval at a very respectable 47-percent rate. That's very good considering how high-risk this form of racing can be most of the time. Dillon is our last Daytona winner in the Next-Gen car with his victory in last August's Coke Zero Sugar 400. You can bet there will certainly be some very valuable notes from that outing for sure.

Bubba Wallace – The 23XI Racing driver has made some of his biggest performances at Daytona International Speedway. Wallace has 11 starts in points races at the historic oval and he's raced to three runner-up finishes (2018, 2021 and 2022), including four total Top-5 finishes at the track. This superspeedway form of racing really seems to play to Wallace's strengths as a driver. In addition, the driver of the No. 23 Toyota has one runner-up finish and three Top-5 finishes in his five-career starts in the Duels. His 4.6 average finish in the qualifying races is a mark that can't be ignored. Wallace has not yet won a Duel, but he's been very close on a few occasions. This could be the season where he finally breaks through in the season-opening qualifying race.     

Michael McDowell – McDowell has never won a Daytona Duel in 13-career attempts, but he came the closest in last season's qualifier finishing runner-up to Chris Buescher in his Duel. The Front Row Motorsports veteran has shown an affinity for superspeedway racing later in his career. McDowell captured the 2021 Daytona 500 win and has cracked the Top 10 in five of his last 11 Daytona starts. Additionally, the driver of the No. 34 Ford has been proficient in his starts at the sister oval in Alabama. McDowell has nabbed four Top-10 finishes, including two third-place finishes in his last seven starts at Talladega Superspeedway. This driver and team are not to be underestimated in this form of stock car racing. McDowell has the skill and equipment to steal a surprise win in his Daytona Duel this week.    

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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