Penske Racing's Kurt Busch and Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton scored Gatorade Duel Daytona 500 qualifying race victories at Daytona International Speedway by mastering the art of choosing a strong drafting partner.
Busch, who drove his No. 22 car to a Bud Shootout exhibition victory last weekend at the speedway, started the first Duel from the pole position and formed a racing partnership with Regan Smith that paid a huge dividend when the pair powered away from the field off a late-race restart.
"All the hard work is culminating here. It's been a great Speed Weeks thus far. To be up front and to be competitive, it's just an awesome feeling.
"Regan Smith was a great teammate today. I call it teammate of the day. He stuck with me and we drafted really well. You have to do a dual-style draft because the cars will overheat if you stay too close. It's a smaller restrictor plate and it's harder to stay attached (with another car in the draft). With the new grill opening, it's harder to stay in line. You have to breathe the car and get it to cool down if you're the guy behind," Busch said. The 12-year Sprint Cup Series veteran and 2004 champion will attempt to ride his restrictor-plate momentum to his first Daytona 500 victory on Sunday. He placed seventh in last season's race and took his 11th career top-10 finish at the track. He's taken four top-five and six top-10 finishes in his past seven Sprint Cup starts on the historic track.
"I'm one away, but I can't think about it. I have to go race the race, let 500 miles play out and not get too caught up in it. Last year we won the All-Star and the 600 at Charlotte, then, just failed miserably in the fall race by trying too hard. I've tried too hard in years past. I just need to settle in and let the race unfold. There's still more things to learn out there and more teammates to team up with," he added.
He officially qualified third, but will move to the front row alongside Jeff Gordon after pole award winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was forced to move back in the field following a practice incident that damaged his No. 88 car yesterday.
Burton returned to Daytona International Speedway's Victory Lane for the first time since his 400-mile race victory on July 1, 2000 after hooking his No. 31 ride up with the No. 33 raced by his RCR teammate Clint Bowyer. The tandem worked well together throughout the 150-mile qualifier to ensure they remained in contention.
Bowyer positioned his machine perfectly behind Burton's during the closing laps, the partners powered away from the competition and the No. 31 crossed the finish line 0.005 of a second in front of the No. 33.
"Clint did exactly what he was supposed to do; there ought to be two cars in this Victory Lane today. He knew I was going to stay on the bottom and I knew he was going to shoot to the outside. It's amazing how much it dragged my car down, but we worked really well together. He pushed me really well, I pushed him really well. We just got really committed and wherever he went, I went. All of us are really committed to working well together and being the best teammates we can possibly be.
"This is a good start for us. I know it's not a point-paying race, but nonetheless we are here and feel real good about it," Burton said.
He will attempt to earn his first Daytona 500 victory on Sunday at a track where he's earned seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes through 34 career starts since 1994. He started 39th and placed 11th in last season's Great American Race. He is set to take the green flag for this season's first race from the fourth spot on the 43-car grid after winning the qualifying race that set the field for the even-numbered portion of the field.
"I think it is going to be a real wild race because we're going to have a lot more cars going for the 500 win. It's not going to be the stereotypical four-wide the entire race because you get such a big run and there is nowhere to go. It's really, really hard to find a hole," Burton added.
Daytona 500 coverage begins at 1:00 p.m. on FOX, Motor Racing Network Radio and Sirius XM Channel 128.
The series makes its Kentucky Speedway debut in a 400-mile spectacular on Saturday, July 9.
Story by Mike Schmaltz