Duels dilemma: Bank points or protect your Daytona 500 car? – Nascar

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The opportunity to earn points and possibly a berth in the season-ending playoffs for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins in earnest here this weekend as drivers prepare for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.


The first chance for points will present itself Thursday as Daytona hosts the annual Can-Am Duels (7 p.m. ET, FS1), two 60-lap qualifying races that will set the bulk of the field for Sunday’s main event. For the first time since 1971, drivers finishing in the top 10 in the Duels will receive points (10th for first through one for 10th).


Will the change alter the way teams approach the two races? Will it impact strategy in points races, now broken into three stages with points up for grabs as well?


“It will make small difference; it will make a difference for David Ragan,” the Front Row Motorsports driver said Wednesday during NASCAR’s annual Media Day at Daytona.


“For me, points are what matter to a smaller team,” Ragan, driver of the team’s No. 38 Ford, said. “And every opportunity we have to gain some points we need to capitalize.


“A team like Kevin Harvick‘s who can lead a lot of laps, they’re going to be fast, win some races, they can overcome not scoring points in a segment. They’re going to be able to score a lot of points quicker but for a team that will be running in the mid-teens or low 20s, if we can score points at some segments or in the Duels … that could mean the difference in making the (playoffs) or not making (them).


“So I think we will be a little more aggressive when it comes to these opportunities to gain points.”

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Harvick, the 2014 series champion, wins with frequency. He’ll be going after career win No. 36 and a second Daytona 500 trophy this weekend at the wheel of the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.


Looming large for teams heading into the Duels is the potential for damage — scarring up the primary entry for the Daytona 500 just to earn a handful of points is a risky proposition.


“I still want to race my primary car in the 500,” Ragan said, adding that some of his best finishes in the race have come in back-up entries. “So it’s not the end of the world … but I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks and do something stupid. But I will be looking to gain some points on Thursday.”


Pete Hamilton, driving the No. 6 Plymouth fielded by Spartanburg, South Carolina for car owner Cotton Owens and David Pearson, in the No. 17 Holman-Moody Mercury, won the two qualifying races in ’71, the last time points were awarded in the for the events.


“For the Duel, you protect the car,” said Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Ford for SHR.


“If you find yourself in a position where it’s jeopardizing the car’s safety, then you want to make sure you make the right moves to protect the car. Because you want to go into the 500 with your primary car.


“The backups are still strong; we put a lot of effort into all of our cars because we had to switch over to Ford. (Matt) Kenseth won in ’09 in a backup car. It can be done. But you always want your best bullet to take to the 500.”


Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon isn’t worried about protecting his car for Sunday’s 500 — a lackluster qualifying effort has the youngster and his team searching for speed and answers.

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“I’m definitely going to do what I can to grab points in the Duel,” Dillon said.


Others, such as Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott (No. 24 Chevrolet) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88) likely won’t be as aggressive. They’ll start 1-2, respectively, on Sunday and while the opportunity to earn a few extra points is nice, they’ll be thinking big picture.


“And some guys are probably pretty excited about their cars for the 500 where I’m just mediocre about my car for the 500 right now,” said Dillon, who was only 26th fastest on pole day and will start 13th in Thursday night’s second Duel.


“I’m going to whip it like crazy the next two days to make me like it or force it to be good.”


Elliott and Brad Keselowski (Team Penske, No. 2 Ford) will start 1-2 in the opening Duel, which is scheduled to go off at 7 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio); Earnhardt and Clint Bowyer (SHR, No. 14 Ford) make up the front row for the second Duel.



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