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Gatorade Duels will line up interesting Daytona 500

Surprise, surprise, but the two Robert Yates Fords secured the first two starting spots in the Daytona 500 Sunday by sweetly sweeping qualifying.

Newcomer David Gilliland, driver of the M&M's Ford, and veteran Ricky Rudd, driver of the Snickers Ford, took first and second during Sunday's qualifying to add to Yates' mystique as an owner with fast cars on the speedways.

Gilliland will be racing in his first 500 while Rudd, coming out of retirement, will be racing in his 30th full-time season.

By taking the first two spots, Gilliland and Rudd will also each start on the pole of Thursday's Gatorade Duel 150-mile races, which will determine the rest of the starting spots for Sunday's race.

Although the Gatorade Duel has yet to be raced, thus sorting out the line up for the 500, I will break down the Top 20 driver's chances of winning the 500 or just even making the race according to their qualifying speeds on Sunday.

1) David Gilliland- Although he is not designated as a rookie, Gilliland is essentially a rookie and starting at the front is where you want to be. If he can hold on for the first few laps, he should be OK. Gilliland was strong in the Shootout, but 500 miles is a lot different.

2) Ricky Rudd- Rudd has been there, done that, but this season is different. After taking a year off, Rudd stepped in to take over the ride left vacant by Dale Jarrett, which has been a good ride. Rudd has been strong in practice, but the Chevy's are dominant when they work together.

3) David Stremme- Good car, good superspeedway team, not a great driver. The Coors Dodge has been good at Daytona, but Stremme has not. Don't look for that to change.

4) Juan Pablo Montoya- Viva Colombia! Montoya has brought a lot of excitement heading into this season, but he has also brought with him a lot of question marks. Montoya is a proven open-wheel driver, but the high banks of Daytona have been known to shake up even the best drivers. Montoya will have his time to shine, but it won't be Sunday.

5) David Ragan- The No. 6 will never be the same without Mark Martin but Ragan will try to do what the veteran Martin never could do: win the 500. Just don't count on it happening this year.

6) Boris Said- Said had a great run at last year's Pepsi 400 under the lights at Daytona, but that run came as a result of great pit strategy. All five of those &#8220Saidheads” shouldn't hold their breath for this one.

7) Jeff Gordon- The 2005 Daytona 500 is always a favorite. The Dupont Chevy experienced mechanical problems during the Shootout, but don't let that fool you. Gordon can, and just might, win this thing.

8) Sterling Marlin- Marlin is a repeat winner of The Great American Race and has been fast during speedweeks. However, since moving over to Ginn Racing to drive the Waste Management car, Marlin's results have been garbage. There is no reason to believe this year will be any different.

9) Johnny Sauter- Nice qualifying effort, but he has no chance.

10) Jimmie Johnson- Last year's 500 and Nextel Cup Champion has been a menace on the superspeedways lately. With Chad Knauss back on the box after being suspended for last season's 500, look for Johnson to be at the front in the end.

11) Casey Mears- Mears had a great run last season, but a change in teams will shake things up a bit. The No. 25 Hendrick machine is probably a better car than the No. 42 Mears drove last season, but changing teams means learning new people, new systems and new lingo. Mears will not do anything new, like winning.

12) Kyle Busch- I must admit that I really can't stand this guy. I despise him. But the boy can race. The youngest Busch led the Shootout until Tony Stewart pushed him aside with eight laps remaining and he should be even hungrier come Sunday.

13) Denny Hamlin- Last year's Shootout winner surprised everyone by heading to victory lane in just his first Cup start on the superspeedway. Hamlin is a star in the making and if he'll just hook up with Stewart, he will do just fine.

14) David Reutimann- Reutimann, driver of the No. 00 Domino's Toyota, has no owner points to fall back on and might as well go ahead and order some pizza because he will probably be watching Sunday's race from home.

15) Jeremy Mayfield- Mayfield is in a new ride this season after being ditched by Ray Evernham with several races to go last season and is hungry to get back into the action. With no owner points to fall back on, Mayfield will need a strong run in the Duels to make it in the big race.

16) J.J. Yeley- Yeley was a big disappointment last season during the 500 and should be again this year. Maybe Joe Gibbs didn't make the best choice in replacing Bobby Labonte.

17) Mike Skinner- Skinner is good on the speedways but his sponsorless car will not be enough to take the Tony Stewarts, Jeff Gordon's and Dale Earnhardts of this world.

18) Tony Stewart- Smoke made a statement on Saturday by nudging Kyle Busch out of the way to take the victory in the Budweiser Shootout. Stewart reminds me a lot of Dale Earnhardt Sr., in that he knows how to win at Daytona. But just like Earnhardt Sr., the 500 has eluded Stewart for years and he is not getting any younger. This year, however, things may just change.

19) Elliot Sadler- Sadler is becoming more and more comfortable in the No. 19 UAW Dodge Dealers Dodge and has been fast during speedweeks. If Sadler teammates Kasey Kahne and Scott Riggs can hook up early, this Dodge could be at the front by the end of the day.

20) Jamie McMurray- McMurray more than underachieved last season in a ride that took home the championship in 2004. Don't expect that to change as McMurray will probably be nursing his ego over some of that Crown Royal following the race.

Other driver's of note:

22) Dale Earnhardt Jr.- Junior knows how to win on the superspeedways as much as anyone. Although his qualifying time was not what he hoped it would be, Junior was strong in the Shootout until being shuffled back late in the race. If Junior doesn't let this season's off-the-track problems get to him, he will most definitely be at the front toward the end of the race.

29) Kevin Harvick- For the first time in more than 20 years, the Richard Childress Chevy will not be sponsored by GM Goodwrench. Shell Oil has stepped in as the primary sponsor and they have come in at a great time. Harvick had a great season last year and should be ready to step it up a notch this year. Happy Harvick is my pick to win not only the 500, but the Nextel Cup as well.

35) Kurt Busch- I REALLY can't stand this guy. His younger brother is bad enough, but this guy gets under my skin. But just like his younger brother, he can drive, and he can drive well. Busch was strong in the Shootout and was strong in last season's 500. Look for him to be at the front early and often.

58) James Hylton- The 72-year-old is attempting to become the oldest driver in NASCAR history to qualify for a race, but he didn't fare so well on Sunday as the driver of the Richard Childress Chevy came in 58th fastest. ESPN commentator and Hall of Fame driver Rusty Wallace predicted Hylton would make the race, but I don't see it happening. If he doesn't kill someone, or himself, in the Gatorade Duel race, it will be a miracle.

Austin Phillips is The Greenville Advocate sports editor.

You can contact him by e-mailing austin.phillips@greenvilleadvocate.com or by calling 382-3111 ext. 122.