The teams may avoid the comparison, and even the confrontation, but so far Sunday’s 57th running of the Daytona 500 is shaping up to be a battle between Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Clearly other teams will factor in, and may even win, but through Sunday’s group qualifying and Thursday night’s Gatorade Duel qualifying races, Hendrick and Gibbs teams have clearly shown to have the drivers and the speed necessary to win NASCAR’s most prestigious race.
Last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., went from last to first in the first 60-lap race, demonstrating his speed and his talent.
His No. 88 Chevrolet had failed post-qualifying inspection Sunday and he was forced to start his qualifying race from the rear of the field.
Gibbs driver Matt Kenseth appeared to be the only one who could battle Earnhardt toe to toe, but he got shuffled back late in the race when Earnhardt made a move to the lead.
“We knew the car was really fast when we got on the track Sunday with the car. I’ve had cars that have been real fast in the single-car runs and not draft well, then I’ve had cars that run real slow by themselves and draft awesome,” Earnhardt said.
“It finishes a lot of moves. It kind of surprised me. It does a couple things that surprised me out there in the race.”
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson had already locked in front-row starting positions based on Sunday’s qualifying, so Earnhardt will make it a Hendrick sweep of the top three starting positions.
In the second race, Kyle Busch took command early but caught with a speeding penalty on pit road with a malfunctioning tachometer. Once Johnson took the lead, he appeared to have little problem maintain it and cruised to the finish.
Busch’s second-place finish in the race earned him the fourth starting position in Sunday’s 500.
“To have the week we have had with the front row being secured, the wins tonight, it has been a great start to Speedweeks,” Johnson said. “I just have to say thank you to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for their hard work.
“What a race car. That car is mad fast. I’m stoked for my teammate (Earnhardt) to win the first duel. We won the second, and Jeff and I have the front row locked down.”
Asked if he saw a Hendrick vs. Gibbs battle shaping up for Sunday, Kenseth demurred.
“I felt like we had one of the stronger cars. The No. 88 (Earnhardt) when he was hooked up with (Gordon) was definitely stronger than us,” Kenseth said.
“If I could have had a car right with me the whole time, then I think we had one of the stronger cars, but when they ganged up on me when I was leading I couldn’t keep it.
“I think they’re pretty tough, though.”
While Busch is not typically a driver pleased with second place, he seemed content with Thursday night’s outcome.
“We were a restart off. I didn’t get the best of jumps there, Jimmie (Johnson) did – really bad on me,” he said. “That just kind of set the tone for the final two laps.
“Proud to have a fast (car). It made us look a lot better there than it did in the Sprint Unlimited so proud of that.”
Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.