In two laps Wednesday, Danica Patrick put herself in danger of missing Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Changes in the qualifying procedure, though, mean she has some high-profile company, including reigning race champion Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With NASCAR abandoning the rule locking the top 35 teams in owner points into the race and the number of entries up to 49 for the 43-car field, several big-name drivers who did not qualify well Sunday – including Earnhardt – could theoretically miss the race.
Only 13 drivers, including pole-winner Jeff Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson, who qualified second, are locked in.
That gives Thursday night’s Gatorade Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway, the typically uneventful twin 150-mile races that lock in the starting positions for the 500, a jolt of drama.
Patrick heightened hers Wednesday. On the second lap of the first Sprint Cup Series practice session, she moved down the track and into Denny Hamlin, who had gone three-wide, triggering what ended up being a five-car wreck.
Patrick’s No.10 Chevrolet, which was briefly stuck in the infield grass, suffered the most damage, and she was one of three drivers – Michael Annett and Jeb Burton were the others – forced to move to backup cars.
All three will start from the rear of their respective Thursday qualifying races.
“I’m obviously disappointed and I know that it was a good car and it’s never a good thing to crash,” she said. “But I was just riding along and it turned. It’s the nature of pack racing, and that’s what makes it challenging, too.”
Hamlin called the incident a “miscalculation.”
“People say in practice that you can’t make aggressive moves, but we also have to put ourselves in decent positions where we’re going to have to figure out what our car is doing,” he said. “I went through the middle and it was really wide. … I had already got inside of (Patrick) and the lane closed.”
Aric Almirola, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray are in based on qualifying speed. Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth are guaranteed spots based on owner provisionals. Tony Stewart is in because of the past champion provisional.
The remaining 30 spots will be filled based on drivers’ performance in Thursday’s races.
“I was fairly confused in and of itself just with what you’ve got to do to get in (the 500) … without going to a backup,” Patrick said. “So, I don’t know. I just know that I have to race hard and that’s the end of it.”
Another wreck, or just a very poor showing, Thursday could push Patrick or another high-profile star out of NASCAR’s most prestigious race.
While Patrick and others might feel compelled to take a more conservative approach, Earnhardt said he’s in the qualifying races to win.
“I’ve had that sort of discussion going on in my head ever since we got through qualifying,” he said. “You don’t want to tear the car up, but the goal is to go out there and win the race.
“It just feels wrong to worry more about keeping the car in one piece than winning an event. You’re in that event to compete and to win.”
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