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Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth win Daytona qualifying races; Danica Patrick crashes

Danica Patrick’s car slides down the track after a crash during the first qualifying race. Patrick isn’t injured, and will drive a backup car in the Daytona 500.

Associated Press

Danica Patrick’s car slides down the track after a crash during the first qualifying race. Patrick isn’t injured, and will drive a backup car in the Daytona 500.

DAYTONA BEACH — Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth won the twin 150-mile qualifying races Thursday, earning spots in the second row for the Daytona 500, and Danica Patrick escaped injury in a wreck after Tampa's Aric Almirola made contact with her on the last lap of the first race.

Stewart held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the first qualifier at Daytona International Speedway.

"I think we showed the rest of the field we have a strong car with speed," Stewart said. "I want those guys to see we have strength."

Kenseth won the second race with a bold pass of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, who led heading into the final lap. Biffle tried to block Kenseth, who dove 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. "Even if I wanted to slow down, which I didn't, I couldn't have."

Robby Gordon and Michael McDowell earned the two spots up for grabs in the first race, while Joe Nemechek of Lakeland and Dave Blaney each made the 500 in the second qualifying race.

Patrick's car had its front end ripped off, and she'll use a backup Sunday in her Sprint Cup debut. After being released from the infield medical care center, she said she hoped her backup might be even faster when she starts from the back of the field. She finished 16th Thursday and was assured of a starting spot in the 500 because of her owner points.

"I'm just very disappointed that the car got crashed with two corners to go," Patrick said. "It's not how we wanted to roll into Sunday. We wanted to just be cool, calm and collected with no damage. But maybe that backup car's fast."

Maybe, she joked, the accident will turn out to be a "blessing in big disguise."

Patrick's race strategist, Greg Zipadelli, was in no mood for jokes.

"Her biggest thing was she wanted to go out there and ride with a bunch of guys and be in there and earn the respect of them — she can do this, she's not all over the place," Zipadelli said. "I mean, I never saw her car move. I saw a lot of grown men who couldn't keep their car under control, so maybe they need to work on that."

Patrick wasn't sure what happened to cause the crash. Jamie McMurray nudged Almirola, who shoved Patrick and sent her spinning into the wall.

"I just got hit," Patrick said. "Just running on the bottom lane and I'm betting it was the chain reaction from the outside, it looked like. Guys get so close on the side drafting that they're touching you sometimes. I'm sure that at times, maybe in that situation it was a 'hitting' side draft. It was just probably a chain reaction."

Stewart, who owns Patrick's car, said he tried to watch her race from his rearview mirror.

"The good thing with a fluorescent green car, she's easy to pick out. The little bit I could see, I thought she did a good job," he said, adding that he'd only seen a replay of her accident.

Stewart said one of Patrick's biggest priorities is earning the respect and trust of Cup drivers.

"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," Stewart said.

Patrick spent most of the race running just outside the top 10, working her way up to sixth at one point. She had a close call early, darting to the apron at the bottom of the track to avoid an accident.

"At times it was much more calm than I expected, to be honest," Patrick said. "When we got single file or very steady two-lane racing, it was pretty calm. So I felt like I learned a lot. I was learning a lot about the side draft and what to do in those situations, how to get the most out of it."

The two qualifying races could not have been more different, and both were far calmer than Saturday night's exhibition Budweiser Shootout. That race was the first display of new rules NASCAR implemented to break up two-car tandem racing that fans opposed.

But the return of pack racing led to three multicar accidents Saturday night and a sling-shot pass at the end of the race that gave Kyle Busch the win.

The first race 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 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."

The second race was caution-free and had little action until the end.

Daytona 500

1 p.m. Sunday, Daytona International Speedway. TV: Ch. 13

Inside

Michael Waltrip out of 500. 5C

Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth win Daytona qualifying races; Danica Patrick crashes 02/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 11:13pm]
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