Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crash frees pole

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Nine drivers are racing for four available spots in the Daytona 500. The other 39 drivers are locked in -- including Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is guaranteed to start last after winning the pole on Sunday.

No, that doesn't make any sense, but it goes with the territory in this qualifying maze of the absurd that applies only to this race.

Earnhardt wrecked in practice Wednesday and had to go to a backup car. He must start in the back for his qualifying race Thursday, but unlike everyone else in the Gatorade Duel twin 60-lap races (except Jeff Gordon), he can't improve his position.

Earnhardt and Gordon were locked in on Pole Day last weekend for earning the front-row spots in single-car qualifying. So Earnhardt is penalized for earning the pole because he wrecked. Anyone not on the front row who wrecked (consider Martin Truex Jr., who wrecked with Earnhardt) could still move up by running well in his qualifying race.

It's insanity, but those are the rules, folks.

These qualifying races are just for show, but it could be a decent show. Drivers want to earn a good starting spot for the 500 to stay in front of any possible early carnage.

And the drivers want to find out what the cars will do with smaller restrictor plates (announced Wednesday) and the new rules package that makes the engines heat up faster in the pairs racing we saw Saturday night in the Bud Shootout.

"We just need to continue to find speed as well as comfort in the car," said Kurt Busch, who won the Shootout. "It's got to be fast, but it's got to be comfortable when it's in the bump draft. I'd like to make sure that we protect this car and get it all the way to the grid Sunday morning looking as fresh as it is now."

Too late for that plan to work for Earnhardt. The driver who wins the first qualifying race will essentially earn the pole for the 500, unless Earnhardt wins it. Then the man who finishes second earns the pole.

Here's why: When a car goes to the back before the green flag of a race, the cars move up by lines. The man who wins the first qualifier Thursday would have started third (the inside on Row 2) in the 500. Now he will move up to the pole position at the green flag.

What a mess. And calling these two 60-lap sprints qualifying races is a bit of a stretch when 81 percent of the drivers already are qualified.

These 150-mile events would be a lot more fun if more was on the line. Do away with the top-35 rule (guaranteeing spots to 35 cars) and these two races would get interesting.

Even without the rule, only five drivers are going home, two from one race and three from the other. And NASCAR doesn't make it easy to figure out who's in and who's out as you're watching. So let me break it down for you:

Five drivers -- Derrike Cope, Casey Mears, Brian Keselowski, J.J. Yeley and Michael McDowell -- have only one option: race their way in.

Sounds simple, but there isn't a specific spot where they need to finish in each race to make the 500. That depends on where other guys finish.

Four other drivers -- Michael Waltrip, Kevin Conway, Dave Blaney and Todd Bodine -- could make the race by racing in on Thursday or possibly relying on their Pole Day speed from Sunday.

Yes, I know. What in the world does all that mean? Explaining the meaning of the universe is easier.

NASCAR took a big step this year to simplify its points system, but you would have a better chance of counting cards to win at blackjack in Las Vegas than understanding all the details of Daytona 500 qualifying.

Only a few drivers racing in the two events Sunday are trying to qualify, and, frankly, other than Waltrip, it isn't a big deal to most fans which of these guys get in the show.

Waltrip is a big deal. Everyone wants him to make the race on the 10-year anniversary of his first victory and the day his boss, Dale Earnhardt, lost his life. As Waltrip calls it, "The best day of my life also was the worst day of my life."

We were the second-fastest Toyota [on Pole Day], so we gave our company something to be proud of. For a car that's only going to run a handful of times, that's a major accomplishment.

-- Michael Waltrip

Waltrip is in good position to make the race. He starts 11th in the second Gatorade Duel and has the fourth-fastest Pole Day speed, so Waltrip probably is in unless he wrecks and finishes last.

"We were the second-fastest Toyota [on Pole Day], so we gave our company something to be proud of," Waltrip said. "For a car that's only going to run a handful of times, that's a major accomplishment."

One man who wants to race hard from the start Thursday is Denny Hamlin. He starts 22nd in the second race because of a bizarre roll into the grass off pit road when his steering wheel locked up on Pole Day.

Hamlin wants to move up quickly Thursday so he doesn't start near the back in the 500.

"It wasn't the best start to the week for us, but we know we have a great car for the 500," Hamlin said. "We'll bounce back."

More than qualifying events, these Duels are glorified practice races with a hint of what fans will see in the 500.

That's true this year more than others because of the new trend to race two-by-two to get to the front, along with the 200-plus mph speeds the cars are reaching in the process. NASCAR reduced the plate opening by 1/64th of an inch Wednesday, which will cut 10 to 12 horsepower from the engines.

NASCAR also took steps to limit the pairs-racing trend with rules announced Sunday to restrict air flow and lower radiator pressure so the engines would get hot faster.

Is it really a good idea to set rules that make it more likely the engines could blow up?

"I don't know if that's a fair way to do it," driver David Reutimann said. "We'll have to try to adjust to it. Like most things in racing, you react to it and try to make the best of it."

The car doing the pushing could overheat in a few laps, but no one knows for sure how long they can stay hooked up with the new limits. Drivers want to learn how far they can push when it really matters on Sunday.

But saying these are qualifying races is misleading. They are two 60-lap test sessions and a little glory for the guys who win.

Unless it's Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.