Tony Stewart continued a solid Speedweeks at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway by finishing sixth in Thursday’s Budweiser Duel, twin qualifying races that set the 43-car field for the season-opening Daytona 500. Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), will start 13th in the 55th Daytona 500 on Sunday.
Stewart finished fourth last Saturday night in the non-points Sprint Unlimited, set the fifth-fastest speed in time trials for the Daytona 500 last Sunday, and has been among the top-11 in each practice session in which he’s participated. It’s been a strong outing for Stewart and the debut of his sixth-generation racecar (Gen-6) – the 2013 Chevrolet SS.
“The top line seemed to be where you needed to be,” said Stewart after his Budweiser Duel qualifying race. “I think there were a lot of guys who weren’t going to be content just riding in line. They kept trying to make a move, and it seemed like the more guys did it in the back half (of the field), the more guys started getting lined up together and working with each other, and I think we started to make a dent at it before pit stops.
“Pit crews are going to make a huge difference on Sunday. That’s going to be the difference between which pack you come out in. You’re going to have to have good stops to stay up there all day.”
Stewart started the 60-lap race around the 2.5-mile superspeedway in third, earned by virtue of his fifth-place qualifying effort on Sunday.
After 10 laps, Stewart drifted to the back of the 23-car field to better gauge the ebb and flow of the draft with the new Gen-6 racecar. His Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 machine was a tick tight through the track’s corners, and after a two-tire pit stop while under caution on lap 54 where Stewart received a slight chassis adjustment, he made a run to the front in the four-lap dash to the finish.
What Stewart and his No. 14 team will have to do now is weigh what can be learned in the next handful of practice sessions on Friday and Saturday with taking care of their racecar for Sunday.
“It’s just risk versus reward,” Stewart said. “Every time you go out there you’ll try to be selective about who you go with, and I think you’ll see what we’ve already seen to this point in practice. I don’t think you’ll see big packs. I think you’ll see a lot of smaller packs go out and run with each other versus one big group.”
Forty-five drivers were split among the two Duels, putting 23 drivers in the first 150-mile race and 22 drivers in the second 150-mile race.
“We only raced against half the field in this qualifier,” Stewart said. “It’s a long race on Sunday, and a lot can happen. Even though we learned some things today, it’s no guarantee for Sunday.”
SHR driver Danica Patrick joined Stewart in the first Budweiser Duel and wheeled her No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS to a 17th-place finish. Patrick, however, will start from the pole for the Daytona 500, as she set the fastest lap in qualifying, which locked her into the No. 1 starting position.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 21st in the second Budweiser Duel after a cut right-rear tire with 20 laps remaining forced an unscheduled pit stop and dropped him off the lead lap. Newman earned the 34th starting spot for the Daytona 500, but because he’s going to a backup car due to the damage sustained from the flat tire, he’ll be forced to start the Great American Race from the back of the 43-car field.
Kevin Harvick won the first Budweiser Duel by .165 of a second over Greg Biffle. Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch took spots three through five. The rest of the top-10 consisted of Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Casey Mears, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano.
Kyle Busch won the second Budweiser Duel by .093 of a second over Kasey Kahne. Austin Dillon, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth took spots three through five. The rest of the top-10 consisted of Mark Martin, Paul Menard, Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan.
With the Budweiser Duel now complete, the field for the Daytona 500 is set. On the pole is Patrick, and alongside her is Jeff Gordon. By notching the two quickest times during last Sunday’s time trials, both drivers were able to lock themselves into the front row for the Daytona 500.
Failing to qualify for the Daytona 500 were Brian Keselowski and Mike Bliss.