DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Don’t look for defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson to take many chances in today’s qualifying race.
Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion, already wrecked one car in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited last week and really likes the Chevrolet his team has prepped and ready for “The Great American Race” on Sunday.
So Johnson was one of a handful of drivers who turned few laps — some drivers didn’t turn any — in the two practice sessions on Wednesday.
“We need to watch ourselves because we’re down to one car,” Johnson said. “We have other stuff at home, but we really don’t want to bring it down here. We like the car that’s sitting over there, ready for the 500.”
Austin Dillon and Martin Truex Jr. are the only drivers who have locked up starting positions in the Daytona 500. Dillon, a rookie, won the pole last Sunday, and Truex earned the other front-row spot. The rest of the field will be set tonight in the 150-mile qualifying races.
For Johnson, who is guaranteed a starting spot in NASCAR’s season opener and its premier event, the only thing that matters is getting to Sunday in one piece.
“It will be weighing on my mind the whole race that we could lose that car and put ourselves in a big hole for the 500,” Johnson said. “We just need to make smart decisions and hope we get through the race with a good, straight race car.”
The top 15 drivers, excluding Dillon and Truex, from each the qualifying races earn spots in the Daytona 500 and will land starting positions 3-32.
That leaves 19 drivers for the final 13 spots. Spots 33-36 are awarded to the four remaining drivers based on qualifying time from last Sunday. The next six spots are based on 2013 owner points.
Like Johnson, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer are locked into the opener. The most recent Cup champion also gets a spot, meaning Tony Stewart (2011), Kurt Busch (2004), Bobby Labonte (2000) and Terry Labonte (1996) can rely on that if needed.
Neither Busch nor Bobby Labonte, both driving for new teams, has owner points from last year. Terry Labonte finished 37th.
Four drivers — Michael McDowell, Cole Whitt, Dave Blaney and Morgan Shepherd — must race their way into one of the 15 automatic spots from the qualifying race because they are so low in qualifying speed and owner points.
Nine others — AJ Allmendinger, Parker Kligerman, Alex Bowman, Reed Sorenson, Joe Nemechek, Josh Wise, Ryan Truex, Terry Labonte and Eric McClure — are outside the top 30 and could get in on 2013 points but have little room for error.
Kligerman was involved in an accident in Wednesday’s practice that sent his car airborne and skidding on its roof down the frontstretch. His Swan Racing team had to pull out a backup Toyota.
“I think everyone struggles to perfectly understand how you get in this race, especially for the first time,” said Kligerman, one of eight rookies vying for the 500. “I think our race car should have enough speed. I saw some way slower cars able to hang in the pack there, so hopefully we can have speed that we had there and be fine.”