Kvapil takes a safe ride into Daytona 500
High drama on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway is a common theme when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits Florida each February to open its season.
Thursday was no exception, as both Gatorade Duel qualifying races were decided by less than a foot.
Four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson edged Kevin Harvick in the first 150-mile Duel, and Kasey Kahne won the second Duel by mere inches over Tony Stewart.
While racing was close and competitive at the front of the pack, much attention also was focused on those drivers who needed to race their way into Sunday’s Daytona 500 field.
For Janesville native Travis Kvapil, a lack of drama on Thursday was a good thing.
No, he didn’t come close to contending in the first qualifying race. And because Kvapil was already locked into the 500, he had no reason to take any unnecessary risks in his debut race with his new team.
Kvapil finished 19th out of 27 starters in his Front Row Motorsports No. 37 Ford. He’ll start 35th on Sunday.
“Our No. 1 objective was to not tear the race car up, not take any chances,” Kvapil said in a phone interview. “We knew we had a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500.
“Early in the race, I drove it really hard, and then our handling started going away. We just decided to fall back a bit and ride it out.
“It’d be nice to run in the top 10 or top five, but this team doesn’t have the resources to take any chances right now.”
Kvapil wasn’t entirely satisfied with his car’s performance Thursday, and he said the team would make several changes to try to improve its handling before Sunday.
“We need to keep working on it to make it turn better,” he said.
Despite some concerns about his Ford Fusion, Kvapil, 33, is feeling a lot better about his situation than he was most of last season.
“Last year was really a bummer,” he said of 2009, when his season with Yates Racing ended abruptly after five races due to a lack of sponsorship. “To be watching on Sundays was really a letdown.”
Ironically, noted engine builder Doug Yates recently joined forces with Front Row Motorsports owner Bob Jenkins, which should provide a big boost along with technical help from Ford Motor Co.
“It feels great to have a home,” Kvapil said. “I’m really optimistic with the direction of Front Row Motorsports. I’m proud to be on the ground floor and help them build a solid team. I think these guys have a great vision.”
Kvapil has been a man on the move during his decade-long NASCAR career. Most of his success has come in the Truck Series, where he was the 2001 Rookie of the Year and the 2003 series champion. Yet he’s had trouble sticking with one team—Truck or Sprint Cup—for a prolonged period.
He’s hoping his new Cup ride will offer him more stability.
“Ideally, I’d like to settle in and build something over three, four years and really build a strong team,” he said.
It all starts Sunday at Daytona, where Kvapil said he has always enjoyed racing.
“In the Truck Series, I’ve been so close to winning two races there, and I led a bunch of races there in the Truck Series. I love restrictor plate racing.”
Kvapil said it’s crucial to accomplish small goals in the 500.
“Obviously, we have to finish the race,” he said. “It’s a long race, and you see a lot of guys slipping around, so keeping out of trouble will be important.
“I think we can run in the top 15 or top 20. That’s one of our goals. If you’re in the lead pack, anything can happen in the closing laps.”
Kvapil has raced seven times at Daytona, including four Daytona 500s. In his first five races at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, he completed all 926 laps—including all 606 laps of his first three Daytona 500s.
His best Daytona finish came in his first Cup race there five years ago, when he finished 19th in the 500 after starting 25th driving the No. 77 Kodak Dodge.
In his sixth Daytona appearance, the July race in 2008, Kvapil completed 161 of 162 laps and finished 30th.
Last year, Kvapil was 42nd. Due to an accident, he completed just 90 of 152 laps in the rain-shortened race.
Kvapil will be driving No. 37 in Sunday’s race, but that isn’t the number he will be running this season. He is scheduled to drive No. 34 the rest of the year.
The reason for this week’s change is that his rookie teammate, Kevin Conway, wasn’t cleared by NASCAR to compete at Daytona. So John Andretti, who drove No. 34 last season, will be behind the wheel of that car again on Sunday.
Last updated: 12:55 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012