DAYTONA BEACH — Today's Budweiser Duel qualifying races present a tricky challenge for Daytona 500 front-row tenants Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon.
The two 60-lap, 150-mile races will help set the rest of the field for Sunday's NASCAR season opener with the new Gen-6 cars that drivers are still feeling out.
Patrick, the first woman to win the pole, and Gordon could take it easy around Daytona International Speedway, or they could try to get a better feel for the new cars in more serious race conditions.
But there's a catch:
If they, or any driver, wreck their primary car today and have to use a backup car, they will start in the back of the field for the 500. Painful if you were sitting in the front row.
"Don't put yourself in any bad positions," crew chief Tony Gibson told Patrick this week. "You don't want to take the chance of wrecking the car."
Still, Gibson doesn't want Patrick to take it too easy.
"You can't run scared," he added. "She's going to have to get out there and race. The Gen-6 car is new. … She's going to have to put herself threewide and let us know what we've got. There's no way around it."
Practice spins: Wednesday was Ryan Newman's turn to demonstrate the instability of the Gen-6 car. He spun about 15 minutes into the day's first session, losing control of his Chevrolet right in front of Carl Edwards and Mark Martin. All three cars were damaged.
Newman had no idea what caused him to spin. "My car came around, I don't know if it was the air off of Carl's car or what," Newman said. "Carl came over and … I said, 'I don't even know what to tell you yet.' "
"I don't think either one of us really understands why his car got so loose," Edwards said. "It was just all of a sudden and he was turned sideways. It's really interesting and something I'm going to be careful of during the race."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew his engine, forcing him to put in a fresh one, which means he will move to the back of the field today before the green flag drops. Defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski missed most of his session with a fuel system issue.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip was fastest in the first practice, turning a lap at 198.347 mph. Kasey Kahne led the less-eventful second practice — only 27 of 45 drivers practiced — with a lap at 197.737 mph.
Space for sale: Believe it or not, Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, has prime, made-for-TV ad space available on the hood of his car. In fact, his No. 88 Chevrolet lacks a primary sponsor for about one-third of the 36 Cup races this season.
The perfect corporate sponsorship has yet to materialize for Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick. Both are preaching patience, believing the right deal will eventually fall into place, and it's not a dire sign that big business has soured on NASCAR.
"We're just looking for the right corporations that are a good fit for us, that are long-term, that want to be in the sport for a while," Earnhardt said. "You don't just take the first guy that comes along."
The National Guard has bolstered its support of the No. 88, going from 16 to 20 races. But Earnhardt is somewhat hindered in finding the right fit because of conflicts with committed corporate sponsors.
Hendrick is not alone when it comes to teams still trying to make all the sponsor pieces fit. Stewart-Haas Racing, owned by three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, has about 20 races spread out over three cars that need a top sponsor.
Drivers are hampered by NASCAR policy in some cases. Sprint's exclusive naming rights deal for the Cup series eliminates other communications companies such as AT&T from consideration, and big tobacco sponsorship money is no longer welcome.