DAYTONA BEACH, FL (Sports Network) – Jeff Burton and Kurt Busch won Thursday’s Gatorade Duel qualifying races in thrilling finishes at Daytona International Speedway, while J.J. Yeley, Bill Elliott, Michael Waltrip and Brian Keselowski raced their way into the Daytona 500.
Burton edged his Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer by the slimmest of margins in the second race. He crossed the line 0.005 seconds ahead of Bowyer to win a Daytona 500 qualifying event for the first time.
“It’s a shame two cars can’t fit in [victory lane], because the way this thing was going, it was really important to have somebody sort of work with you,” said Burton, who is credited with the fourth starting position in the Daytona 500. “Clint and I decided that we were just going to find each other early, and it worked out well for the both of us.”
Waltrip finished third, while Kyle Busch took the fourth spot. Keselowski, the older brother of Sprint Cup Series regular and 2010 Nationwide champion Brad Keselowski, was fifth.
Kurt Busch held off Regan Smith during a two-lap overtime finish to claim the win in the first qualifier. Busch passed Kasey Kahne with a push from Smith just after the final restart on the second to last lap.
Kevin Harvick finished third, while Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne rounded out the top-five.
Busch started Speedweeks at Daytona by winning last Saturday’s pre-season Budweiser Shootout.
“This has been an incredible Speedweeks, and I just don’t want it to end,” Busch said after winning his first qualifying event at Daytona. “I want to make sure we keep doing everything right.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed the pole for the Daytona 500 this past weekend. But Earnhardt Jr. will have to start Sunday’s 500-mile from the rear of the field, since he was forced to use a backup car after crashing his primary one in practice on Wednesday at Daytona. He also crashed in the Budweiser Shootout.
Therefore, Busch will lead the field for the Daytona 500 by virtue of his win in the qualifier.
Earnhardt Jr. got his first opportunity to drive his backup car in the opening qualifier, finishing 13th in the 62-lap event.
“We’ve got some homework to do, but we’ve been working really hard,” he said. “I got these guys [Earnhardt Jr.’s No.88 team] so far behind with those two wrecks this week, but we’re coming back.”
Jeff Gordon, who had already locked down the outside pole for the 500-mile race, was nearly caught up in a multi-car wreck involving Trevor Bayne and David Ragan during the last lap of the second qualifier. Gordon finished 12th.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t end very well, and we’ll just go to work and see what we have to do for the 500,” Gordon said.
Elliott’s 15th-place finish and Yeley’s 17th-place run were good enough to earn them a spot in the Daytona 500.
Yeley got a lot of pushing help from Marcos Ambrose in the closing laps of their qualifying race.
“I wouldn’t have made it without Marcos Ambrose,” Yeley said. “It took us a while until we got everything figured out for the swap. But once we got that done, we didn’t lose nearly as much time. We got where we needed to be.”
Elliott’s qualifying time had already placed him in the lineup for what will be his 28th Daytona 500 start.
“Coming in today, we had a little bit of a cushion by qualifying well this past Sunday,” Elliott said. “I was still pleased by the way we ran.”
Waltrip, the 2001 and ’03 Daytona 500 champion, will start eighth in the race. He had secured his starting position before his run in the second qualifier, since Elliott raced his way into the show.
“You know they like to put a car together at [Michael Waltrip Racing] for the old man,” Waltrip said. “Let him go out there and see what he can do.”
Waltrip, who is commemorating the late-Dale Earnhardt with a special paint scheme on his car this week, is scheduled to make his 25th consecutive start in the Daytona 500.
NASCAR team owner Bob Keselowski, a former driver in the Camping World Truck Series and ARCA, will have both of his sons, Brad and Brian, competing in the Daytona 500.
“I owe everything to everyone right now,” a jubilant Brian Keselowski said.
Travis Kvapil, the 2003 truck series champion, finished 13th in the second race, but made the 500-miler based on his qualifying speed.
Five drivers — Casey Mears, Todd Bodine, Derrike Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner, Michael McDowell and Kevin Conway — failed to qualify for NASCAR’s most prestigious race of the season.
Mears, who finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the 2006 season-opener at Daytona, blew an engine on the third lap of the final qualifying event. Bodine was involved in an accident with Steve Wallace later in that qualifier.
A late-race caution for McDowell’s engine failure set up the overtime finish in the first qualifier.
Conway’s 18th place finish in the first race and Cope’s 14th-place run in the second were not good enough to get them into the Daytona 500.