Murto: How will Danica do at Duel?

^ Posted Feb. 20

By Craig Murto

By now you've already heard that Danica Patrick is on the pole for the Daytona 500, making her the first woman to win a pole for a NASCAR Cup race.

The attention has been great for NASCAR. As Larry O'Donohue -- host of In the Pits Racing Radio -- observed, Danica's history-making qualifying run gets NASCAR "a lot of Sports Center time." And it sure beats hearing about her drive into the record books than hearing about her romance with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Danica does deserve credit. It's true that a fast time on a restrictor-plate track is more a function of a well-prepared car than anything the driver did. Danica's crew chief, Tony Gibson, prepared a very fast race car. But a driver can mess up a fast time by driving the wrong line and scrubbing speed off, so Danica did do her job, and she did it well.

The question is: What kind of job will she do today?

Today is the running of the Budweiser Duel, the twin 150-mile qualifying races that determine the starting lineup for Sunday's Daytona 500. Only Danica and second qualifier Jeff Gordon are locked into the field. Everybody else must either race their way in or hope they have a quick enough speed from qualifying to fall back on. Somebody's going home.

That makes today a good chance to tear up a race car. Will Danica use today's qualifying race as a chance to practice for the 500, or will she park the car? After all, if she crashes the car and has to go to a backup, she'll start the 500 from the rear of the field. That's not where she wants to start after becoming the first woman to grab the pole.

If I were her crew chief, I'd be asking her to park the car shortly after the start. Save the car, save the engine, and start the 500 from the pole. You can tune into the Budweiser Duel today at 2 p.m., to see exactly what she does.

If Sunday's Sprint Unlimited race for last year's pole sitters is any indication, Kevin Harvick will be racing to the front in today's qualifier. Tony Stewart, Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth will probably race well. But if anybody learned anything from the Sprint Unlimited, it is that they still have a lot to learn about how the new "Gen 6" car will race in a draft. Some say it drafts like cars did 20 years ago, which means many drivers today don't have a clue how to race with it yet. At least the awful two-car tandem drafting appears to be a thing of the past, since the bumpers do not line up well enough for cars to remain hooked for more than a push down a straight.

If Danica chooses to race and actually wins today, she won't be the first woman to win at Daytona. That distinction belongs to 19-year-old Elena Myers, an AMA pro motorcycle racer who won a sprint race at the speedway last March.

Don't be surprised if Danica does well. After all, John Wes Townley surprised everyone and won the 200-mile ARCA race after Milka "too slow" Duno led a number of laps, so anything can happen on the high banks. And in all fairness, Danica did win an IndyCar race. It was a fuel-mileage victory, but I never begrudge drivers for winning that way -- the first driver to finish the distance wins, regardless how it happens.

In Dallas last weekend, Ryan Villopoto won the 450 Supercross race in dominating fashion, his Kawasaki the class of the field. It was the third win this year for the defending champion. Point leader Davi Millsaps finished second on his Suzuki, his eighth podium finish in nine races. Ryan Dungey finished third on his KTM, and remains second in points 21 behind.

Dean Wilson won the 250 East race, but it was the gutsy performance by Zach Bell that had the crowd talking.

Bell was leading his heat race when his foot slipped off a peg while his Honda was airborne after a jump. He did the smart thing and pushed himself away from the motorcycle, but slammed the packed racing surface so hard he lost consciousness. The race was red-flagged as medical personnel tended to him.

The amazing thing was that he got back on his motorcycle and made the main event through the Last Chance Qualifier. Unfortunately he crashed again in the feature, but only after he proved to the gathered crowd that he is one tough 18-year-old.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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