DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — A twist to tonight’s qualifying races is how much uncertainty surrounds the 150-mile events (7 p.m. ET).
Unlike years past at Daytona International Speedway, Cup teams have not been allowed to adjust their car or practice since making single-car qualifying runs Sunday. The choice was simple for teams: Make the car fast in a bid for the pole or make it stable — and slower — to be better prepared for the qualifying race.
Hendrick Motorsports scored the pr coup by winning the Daytona 500 pole for Alex Bowman. Now, the No. 88 driver likely will have a car that won’t feel as comfortable, particularly if he’s shuffled back into the pack. Then if he is involved in a crash and goes to a backup car, he loses that No. 1 starting spot.
“I think sitting on the pole we kind of showed our hand that we’re pretty trimmed out,’’ Bowman said of taking out downforce and stability for speed. “Now it’s my job to keep it out of trouble. It’s going to be a handful. Hopefully, on some of the pit stops we can work on it a little bit.
“I wouldn’t worry about how we’re going to run in the Duel. We’re going to try to keep the race car as safe as we can.’’
Of course, there are points at stake. Stage points will be given at the end of the 60-lap race. The winner receives 10 points. The point total decreases by one down to 10th place, which receives one point.
“It’s good to start the year with 10 points before the 500 even starts,’’ said Denny Hamlin, who won one of the two qualifying races last year and qualified second for this year’s 500. “I think I have to try to win the race, but if I catch myself in a tough spot in the middle, three-wide with three to go, I’ve got to try to get out of it. It’s not worth five points and then getting a wreck and taking away our best car.”
An ill-handling car can be too much even for those considered among the most talented drivers. Kyle Larson fought his car in Sunday’s Clash.
“It felt like the car was just like out of the track, like not a lot of grip, the air was kind of moving me around wherever it wanted to,’’ Larson said. “There wasn’t much I felt I could do. I was happy we got in line single file so I could just relax, and I was still on it. I still felt like I was going to spin out every time I went into a corner.
“So it’s just a sketchy, sketchy feeling when you’re going 200 miles an hour and you’ve got a line of cars behind you that are there ready for you to crash and run into you. Yeah, hopefully we can get our car driving better.”
Larson and others couldn’t take what they learned from the Clash to adjust the setup in the qualifying car because those cars were impounded before the Clash race began.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won two restrictor-plate races last year, sees his qualifying race as an opportunity. If he’s collected in a wreck and has to go to another car? So be it.
“I’m going for points,’’ Stenhouse said. “(After) the race was over Sunday, I talked to my crew chief and I told him, ‘Hey, I want to get this Clash car turned around and ready to go in case we need to run it come Sunday.’ I didn’t want to run our backup car that I haven’t raced.
“I really liked the way our car drove in the Clash, so I told him if something happens to our 500 car in the Duel that I want to bring our Clash car back down here, so we’re bringing it back down. They’ve already got it cleaned up and turned around and ready to go, so it will come back down here. But we want to go get points. We want to win a Duel and collect another trophy and put ourselves in the best starting spot come Sunday, but if something happens in that, I feel really comfortable with our Clash car that we had.”