Daytona 500: Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth win qualifying races

The Daytona 500 is underway and defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth won the first two races to be lined up together at the Daytona International Speedway.

By , Associated Press

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    Daytona 500: Clockwise from bottom left, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and Danica Patrick, talk to crew members during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race in Daytona Beach, Fla., Wednesday.
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Roush Fenway Racing will have three cars at the front of the season-opening Daytona 500.

Matt Kenseth won the second of the twin qualifying races Thursday with a bold pass of teammate Greg Biffle. The victory gave Kenseth a spot on the second row for Sunday's race — right behind teammates Carl Edwards and Biffle.

Tony Stewart, the defending NASCAR champion, won the first race and will line up next to Kenseth at DaytonaInternational Speedway.

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Biffle was leading headed into the final lap, but he tried to block Kenseth, who dived to the inside and used a push from Jimmie Johnson to take the lead.

"Well, we were going so much faster that we were going to go by him regardless," Kenseth said. "That was his only hope, is to try to get up the track, try to line my front bumper up where I had to push him. The problem was, I was going too fast. Even if I wanted to slow down, which I didn't want to on the last lap, I couldn't have."

Robby Gordon and Michael McDowell earned the two spots up for grabs in the first race, while Joe Nemechek and Dave Blaney each raced their way into the 500 in the second qualifying race.

Gordon said after he'd be willing to sell his seat to two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, who failed to qualify for the race after crashing as he tried to return to the track surface after a late pit stop. The accident means it will be the first time since 1972 neither Darrell Waltrip or Michael Waltrip will be in NASCAR's biggest race of the season.

"I just went the wrong way and lost the car," said a dejected Waltrip. "I feel like I let everybody down. I don't know what to say. It's just sad."

The two qualifying races could not have been more different, and both were far calmer than Saturday's exhibition Daytona 500. That race was the first display of new rules NASCAR implemented to break up the two-car tandem racing that fans vehemently opposed.

But the return of pack racing led to three multi-car accidents and a sling-shot pass at the end of the race that gave Kyle Busch the win over Stewart.

The first race on Thursday had one early five-car accident that began when McDowell ran into David Gilliland, who shot directly into Juan Pablo Montoya and Paul Menard.

Menard then questioned the style of racing NASCAR has created.

"It's a mess out there," said Menard, who was also wrecked in the Shootout. "NASCAR is trying to dictate physics. Physics says two cars are going to push and they're trying to make rule changes to keep us from doing it, so it's kind of hybrid pack racing and tandem racing. It's causing a pretty unsafe situation."

On the last lap of the race, with Stewart trying to hold off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a race to the checkered flag, Danica Patrick's car was hit as the pack raced down the back straight.

Patrick was hit by Aric Almirola, sending her car sliding across the track and into an inside retaining wall. Her Chevrolet lifted off its wheels as it hit the SAFER barrier, which noticeably softened the blow.

She was not injured and will make her Daytona 500 debut on Sunday.

"It happened really quick," she said. "We were just looking to finish, to be honest, and unfortunately that wasn't the case. It felt pretty big. I don't know what it looked like."

Stewart, who owns Patrick's car, said he tried to watch her race from his rearview mirror.

"I got to see a replay of it, but I didn't see how it started," he said. "The little bit I could see, I thought she did a good job. There wasn't any doubt in my mind she would do that. It's hard for her now because she's trying to gain the confidence of the guys around her that she's solid and is going to make good decisions.

"She's trying to gain the other drivers' confidence."

The second race was caution-free and had very little action until the end, when Kenseth passed Biffle for the win. It made it unclear what the Daytona 500 will look like, but Stewart, who is 0 for 13 in this race, said he's not been holding back during SpeedWeeks and will race hard on Sunday.

"We showed the rest of the field that we have a car that has good speed," he said. "I want those guys to see that we've got strength. It's an advantage to do that at this point of the game, showing that guys around you are going to hopefully want to be around you, and know that you've got a car that can stay up there, so they want to stay with you."

Stewart, who hasn't missed a beat since closing out last season's title run, picked up his first victory with new crew chief Steve Addington, who was hired to replace Darian Grubb after Stewart's championship run.

"We took care of business today," Stewart said.

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