The Daytona 500 is a NASCAR race like no other, and not simply because it’s the most prestigious race on the calendar. For most other NASCAR events, the starting order is determined by a standard single-car qualifying session. An altogether different — and somewhat confusing — system has been used for the Daytona 500 for its entire existence.
How does Daytona 500 qualifying work?
Firstly, this session takes place an entire week out from the race itself, as opposed to most Cup Series qualifying runs, which occur a day or two before. There is a good reason for this. As confusing as this sounds, the Daytona 500 qualifying session mostly doesn’t determine the order for the 500 itself.
The two drivers who post the best times from the qualifying session are guaranteed their spots on the front row for the 500. The rest of the drivers will have their starting position determined by their performance in the Bluegreen Vacations Duel (as they’re now called) races. These usually take place on the Thursday before the Daytona 500.
How do the 150-mile races work?
This is where it gets complicated.
One of the Duel races consists of those drivers who qualified in odd-numbered (or “inside”) positions. The other consists of those who qualified in even-numbered (“outside”) positions. Aside from the top two qualifiers from the previous time trial (as mentioned above), the finishing order of each Duel determines the final starting order for the Daytona 500.
The winner of the “inside” Duel race will start third. The second-place finisher will start fifth, the third-place finisher will start seventh, and so on. Repeat the process for the “outside” Duel race and add a number to each.
Until 2017, the races were merely qualifying events that awarded no championship points. This changed in 2017, the same year NASCAR significantly overhauled its race format to implement stages. Since then, the winner of each Duel receives 10 championship points. However, a Duel win does not count toward advancing to the playoffs.
Why this weird setup in the first place?
One word: convertibles.
In the late 1950s, alongside its Grand National Division (now known as the Cup Series), NASCAR also ran a short-lived series for racing convertibles. In the earliest days of the Daytona 500, convertibles also raced alongside standard Grand National Stock cars.
The first Daytona 500, in 1959, attracted so many entrants that it required two separate qualifying races to separate them all. One for the convertibles, another for the hard-tops. One of the convertible drivers in the field for the inaugural 500 was a young Richard Petty. He finished 57th out of the 59-car field after his Oldsmobile broke down on lap eight.
NASCAR’s founder, Brian France, was determined to have an equal field of convertibles and hard-tops. So determined, in fact, that he offered $100 to any Grand National driver who agreed to cut off the top of their car to make it a “convertible”. Unfortunately, the convertibles could never keep up with the hard-tops at Daytona. The convertible series also died off by 1959. However, the twin-race qualifying format for the Daytona 500 remains in place.