It's only been about three months since the checkered flag waved at Homestead signaling the end of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season but to a race fan it seems a lot longer. The wait is now officially over as the new season is all set to begin as Daytona International Speedway opened its gates this past weekend to begin the annual rite of passage known as Speedweeks.
It is the best time of the year for everybody involved from the driver that crawls behind the wheel to the race fan at the track and sitting in front of his TV. Every driver arrives at Daytona with the same opportunity to end their week as the Daytona 500 winner and every race fan has the thought that this could be the year that their driver holds up the Harley J. Earl Trophy as the Daytona 500 winner.
It is not only the most highly sought after trophy on the entire MENCS schedule but also one of the most difficult to win as the process of winning the race actually turns into a week-long process. That process got underway on Sunday when every driver took to the track to qualify by posting their fastest lap time in a single car run.
Sunday's qualifying guaranteed starting spots for the pole winner and the second fastest driver but it turned into a coronation of sorts as Hendrick Motorsports' four teams swept the first four qualifying spots as their Chevrolet Camaro ZL1's were the class of the field.
Hendrick's William Byron turned in the fastest lap at 194.305 mph (46.319 seconds) which edged out his teammate Alex Bowman who had already posted a speed of 194.154 mph. They were followed in second and third by teammates Jimmie Johnson (193.807 mph) and Chase Elliott (193.782 mph).
The next step in Daytona's unique qualifying process will take place this Thursday night with the running of the Gander RV Duel races. While there may only be two drivers going into the Duel races knowing where they will start, 34 other drivers will take the green flag in the duels knowing they will start in the 500 regardless of where they finish because of the Charter system that the series uses that guarantees 36 teams a spot in the field at each stop on the schedule.
There are a total of six drivers without Charters attempting to make the starting field for the race but two of them already punched their tickets into the 500 by posting the two fastest speeds among the that group of drivers.
Tyler Riddick posted the 16th fastest speed followed by Casey Mears who put up the 26th fastest lap. That leaves Ryan Truex, Brenden Gaughan, Parker Kligerman and Joey Gase as the four drivers competing in the Duels for the remaining two spots.
The starting field for the Duels is set according to where a driver finished in Sunday's qualifying. The first Duel is comprised form the odd-numbered drivers from the qualifying speed chart from Sunday and the field for the second Duel is made up from the even numbered drivers. Each field also will contain an even numbered of non-Charter teams that are trying to drive their way into the starting field.
The finishing order of the first Duel will fill in the odd numbered starting spots for the 500 with the winner of the duel starting in the third position, second place will start fifth and will continue until the inside row of the starting field is set. The winner of the second duel will start in fourth place followed by the second place finisher in sixth and continue until the outside row is set.
There is no better way for a driver to start the year than with a win in the biggest race on the entire schedule. The driver and his team gets bragging rights for not only a year but for the rest of their career as this is the one race that can not only make a season but also can make a career.