Matt Kenseth celebrates after winning the first of two qualifying races Thursday for Sunday's Daytona 500.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Roush Fenway Racing will have three cars at the front of the season-opening Daytona 500.
Matt Kenseth won the second of the twin 150-mile qualifying races Thursday with a bold pass of teammate Greg Biffle. The victory gave Kenseth a spot on the second row for Sunday’s race — right behind teammates Carl Edwards and Biffle.
Tony Stewart, the defending NASCAR champion, won the first race and will line up next to Kenseth at Daytona International Speedway.
Biffle was leading headed into the final lap, but he tried to block Kenseth, who dove to the inside and used a push from Jimmie Johnson to take the lead.
“Well, we were going so much faster that we were going to go by him regardless,” Kenseth said. “I think that was his only hope, is to try to get up the track, try to line my front bumper up where I had to push him. The problem was, I was going too fast. Even if I wanted to slow down, which I didn’t want to on the last lap, I couldn’t have.”
Robby Gordon and Michael McDowell earned the two spots up for grabs in the first race, while Joe Nemechek and Dave Blaney each raced their way into the 500 in the second qualifying race.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip failed to qualify for the race after wrecking as he tried to return to the track surface after a late pit stop. The accident means it will be the first time since 1972 neither Darrell Waltrip or Michael Waltrip will be in NASCAR’s biggest race of the season.
“I just went the wrong way and lost the car,” said a dejected Waltrip. “I feel like I let everybody down. I don’t know what to say. It’s just sad.”
The two qualifying races could not have been more different, and both were far calmer than Saturday night’s exhibition Daytona 500. That race was the first display of new rules NASCAR implemented to break up the two-car tandem racing that fans vehemently opposed.
But the return of pack racing led to three multi-car accidents and a sling-shot pass at the end of the race that gave Kyle Busch the win over Stewart.
The first race on Thursday had one early five-car accident that began when McDowell ran into David Gilliland, who shot directly into Juan Pablo Montoya and Paul Menard.
Menard then questioned the style of racing NASCAR has created.
“It’s a mess out there,” said Menard, who was also wrecked in the Shootout. “NASCAR is trying to dictate physics. Physics says two cars are going to push and they’re trying to make rule changes to keep us from doing it, so it’s kind of hybrid pack racing and tandem racing. It’s causing a pretty unsafe situation.”
On the last lap of the race, with Stewart trying to hold off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a race to the checkered flag, Danica Patrick was wrecked as the pack raced down the backstretch.
Patrick was hit by Aric Almirola as they raced along the backstretch. The contact sent her car sliding across the track and into an inside retaining wall. Her Chevrolet lifted off its wheels as it hit the SAFER barrier, which noticeably softened the blow.
She was not injured and will make her Daytona 500 debut on Sunday.
“It happened really quick,” she said. “We were just looking to finish, to be honest, and unfortunately that wasn’t the case. It felt pretty big. I don’t know what it looked like.”
Stewart, who owns Patrick’s car, said he tried to watch her race from his rearview mirror.
“I got to see a replay of it, but I didn’t see how it started,” he said. “The little bit I could see, I thought she did a good job. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind she would do that. It’s hard for her now because she’s trying to gain the confidence of the guys around her that she’s solid and is going to make good decisions.
“She’s trying to gain the other drivers’ confidence.”
The second race was caution-free and had very little action until the end, when Kenseth passed Biffle for the win. It made it unclear what the Daytona 500 will look like, but Stewart, who is 0 for 13 in this race, said he’s not been holding back during SpeedWeeks and will race hard on Sunday.
“I think we showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed,” he said. “I want those guys to see that we’ve got strength. I think it’s an advantage to do that at this point of the game, showing that guys around you are going to hopefully want to be around you, and know that you’ve got a car that can stay up there, so they want to stay with you.”
Stewart, who hasn’t missed a beat since closing out last season’s title run, picked up his first victory with new crew chief Steve Addington, who was hired to replace Darian Grubb after Stewart’s championship run.
“We took care of business today,” Stewart said.