Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images via NASCAR

Nerves High Heading into Thursday Duels at Daytona

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.  – Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacation Duels at Daytona mark one of the most nerve-wracking nights of the NASCAR Cup Series season, with a place in the starting field for the Daytona 500 up for grabs or a ticket home for those less fortunate.

For the 66th running of the Great American Race, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over four drivers not yet locked into the 40-car field. By the end of the night, two drivers will punch their ticket into Sunday’s main event, while two others will be left on the outside looking in.

Among the drivers who are in for a nail-biting evening at the World Center of Racing are seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, J.J. Yeley, B.J. McLeod, and Kaz Grala.

Driving the No. 84 Toyota for Legacy Motor Club, which he co-owns, Johnson has some options as far as his chances to advance into the field.

The guaranteed option is to be the highest-finishing non-chartered car in the first Duel race which he will race in. Then comes the other options in which he’ll need some help. If already locked in drivers Anthony Alfredo or David Ragan are the top-finishing drivers in their respective Duel races or if B.J. Mcleod is the highest-finishing Open car.

Last season, Johnson was able to lock himself in during qualifying, erasing the nerves that come with having to race in through the Duels, so Thursday night will be new territory for the two-time Daytona 500 champion.

While the nerves are at an all-time high for him and his team, Johnson noted that he is ready for the challenge that lies ahead.

“I had higher expectations for sure,” Johnson said after his qualifying lap that was only good enough for 36th fastest on Wednesday night. “I wish we had a bit more out of ours, but it is what it is. We will go out and race hard [Thursday] night and try to make the 500.

“I came down here mentally prepared to race my way in if that was required. I’m well studied. I spent a lot of time working on the environment of the Duels and the way the race will unfold. Just get out there and race hard and see how it unfolds.”

Like Johnson, B.J. McLeod also has options to be able to make it into the field. He can be the fastest non-chartered driver in the second Duel race, or with some help. If Johnson or Alfredo are the top open cars and Ragan is the top open car in Duel 2, his ticket into the field will be secure.

Yeley and Grala, who were at the bottom of the time sheet in qualifying on Wednesday have but one way in – be the top-finishing open car in their respective Duels or pack up and make the long, lonesome trip home.

Grala will be piloting a third entry for Front Row Motorsports in his bid for a third start in the Daytona 500. A mechanical issue plagued Grala’s team on Wednesday night and prevented him from being able to make a qualifying lap, but the team could find some comfort in the fact that its other two entries posted speeds inside the top-11, including a front row start for Michael McDowell.

“This will, of course, be my third time going to the 500 as an open car, and I know what that stress is like,” Grala said earlier in the month ahead of the Daytona 500. “Every time I’ve done it I’ve said I really hope next time it’s in a charter and every time I keep coming back for more in an open entry. That definitely has got to be the most stressful week of the year in racing when you’re in that position, so I know from experience that the race can be made.

“I feel confident that I know how to get there. I’ve done it before. So far, I’m 2-for-2, but I also know that anything can happen because at least one if not both of those times I did make it I was actually in a position where I wasn’t gonna make it because I got wrecked or I got a speeding penalty.

“I have not had the smoothest Duels before and they’ve ended up falling in my favor at the end because of crazy circumstances, so I’ve been on the right end of that, but I know that it’s possible to be on the wrong end of that, too.”

Yeley, meanwhile, was a last-minute addition for the No. 44 NY Racing team after it failed to come to terms with Greg Biffle to race this weekend. The Phoenix, Ariz. Native will be looking to make his first start in the Daytona 500 since 2015.

The 150-mile Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying races are scheduled for 7:00 pm ET on FOX Sports 1.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.