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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Riggs, Mayfield, Stewart, Allmendinger are all great stories on Duels day

One world can describe the outcome of Thursday’s qualifying Duels at Daytona -- Redemption.

While part of the headlines today is that Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch won the two races, that means very little. Both had guaranteed starting spots in the race and your position on the starting grid means almost nothing at Daytona.

The truly great stories that emerged were the four drivers who raced their way into the 500, all of whom had a big hill to climb when they unloaded their cars at Daytona.

Both Mayfield and Riggs, dumped from their Cup rides in 2008, share the same story of instant achievement that I am still amazed can happen in this sport. One month ago, neither of the teams they drive for (Tommy Baldwin Racing, and Mayfield’s self-owned team) existed. Baldwin tapped Riggs to drive for him and the team went into hyperdrive to get ready for Daytona, even without a sponsor. Mayfield did the same, and somehow managed to pull in a sponsor in this grim economy.

You could see the emotion in Mayfield’s face after the race, something that you don’t see too often in the increasingly corporate, sponsor-listing Victory Lane ceremonies. You could tell he did absolutely everything he could to make this race, and was still amazed he had done it.

Both cars were longshots to make the 500 just because the teams were so new. But sure enough, they both were able to get in the old-fashioned way: Racing their way in. It’s doubtful they’ll have the goods to fight with drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon for the win, but Riggs and Mayfield looked very strong in the draft at times and could get a solid finish if they keep their cars off the wall.

Another great story is A.J. Allmendinger, who was forced to qualify on time due to some last-minute points wrangling. Despite that unfair situation, A.J. kept his cool and raced his way in. And it‘s a good thing he did, because that's the only way he was going to be in the 500. For a guy who’s caught a lot of tough breaks over the past two years, it’s nice to see Allmendinger finally achieving some success and stability in NASCAR.

Finally, despite his big name in the sport, even Tony Stewart racing his way in is a good story. He left a prime ride at Gibbs to strike out as an owner/driver, and everyone said he was crazy. And even though his new team is affiliated with Hendrick, it’s still a new team and it’s pretty impressive that he almost won his Duel and ran up front all day. He had a guaranteed spot due to being a past champion, but running so well had to be a great confidence booster for the team.

Among the drivers who wasn’t able to race his way into the 500 was Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski, but he will attempt many more Cup races this year and beyond, so it’s not the end of the world for him. He tried to stay out when everyone else pitted to gain an advantage, but that ended up being a mistake.

Overall, the racing was impressive Thursday, and it’s hard to take issue with the guys who were able to qualify. All made a statement that they have the goods to compete in this sport's top level.


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