DAYTONA BEACH — The Can-Am Duel — the two, 150-mile Daytona 500 qualifying races — are the same, but different this time around at Daytona International Speedway.
The two 60-lap races, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. Thursday, will decide the starting grid for Sunday’s 500, but the excitement of drivers racing their way into the big race is gone.
There are 40 cars entered to fill the 40-car field. No one will be packing up and going home after Thursday’s twin races.
On the flip side, drivers will be facing several challenges such as smaller pit crews, plus weighing the pros and cons of an all-out charge for stage points or protecting their best equipment for Sunday.
Alex Bowman, making his debut as the full-time driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., will lead the first 20-car field to the green flag.
Bowman won the 500 pole in Sunday's time trials and is locked into the first row of the grid.
Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson will start next to Bowman on the front row in his No. 48 Chevy.
Once that race is done, Denny Hamlin, who wheels the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, will be on the pole for the second qualifying race.
He will be starting next to Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, who drives the No. 18 Toyota.
There is a reward for a solid finish. The top-10 finishers in each race will earn championship points, with 10 going to the race winners.
Bowman wants to be in win-mode, but will have to see how his car responds in the draft with the cars around him.
“I want to be able to be super aggressive,’ he said. “As far as the Duels go, I think sitting on the pole we kind of showed our hand that we’re pretty trimmed out.
“And it’s an impound race now. We can’t touch it. Now it’s my job to keep it out of trouble. It’s going to be a handful. Hopefully, on some of the pit stops we can work on it a little bit.”
Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, says he plans to run conservative until he can get to pit road to make race adjustments to his Chevy, which remains in a slippery, qualifying trim.
“We worked hard to try to get the front row,” Johnson said. “My initial concern is, ‘How well is this thing going to drive in the draft?’
“We learned so much in the Clash about performance and handling; how far you want to trim a car out.”
All the cars will have to pit at least once to complete the 60 laps over the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
Johnson sees that as the moment of truth for his chances.
“Until I get out there, get five, six laps in the draft, at this higher pace the new package is producing, you just don't know how good my car will drive,” he said.
“Get to the first pit stop, make some changes, go from there.”
The pit stops will be slower than last year. The over-the-wall-crew has been trimmed from six to five.
The cars in the Clash struggled with the new head count. The fastest pit stop was 16.9 seconds, with is about five seconds slower than an average stop in 2017.
Hamlin said he still hasn’t decided what strategy to use in the Duel.
“I don't know what's the right thing to do (Thursday),” he said. “I mean, there are points at stake. We won last year in the Duel, and we got 10 points.
“I think I have to try to win the race, but if I catch myself in a tough spot in the middle, three wide with three to go, I've got to try to get out of it. It's not worth five points and then getting in a wreck and taking away our best car."