DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The grid for Sunday's Daytona 500 was set yesterday in finishes so close, NASCAR had to practically pry first from second in both Gatorade Duel 150s at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday.
And if that wasn't enough drama, Jimmie Johnson won his half of the Duel in a back-up No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after crashing his primary car in practice, forcing him to start from last place.
He crossed the finish line just .005 seconds in front of Kevin Harvick in the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
In the second Duel, Kasey Kahne, in the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, battled right to the last second -- actually 14/100ths of a second -- before moving in front of two-time series champion Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
Johnson had snaked his way past the competition and finally took the lead with seven laps left when he and crew chief Chad Knaus gambled on old tires when the rest of the front-runners stopped for new rubber.
"Just shows we don't build bad race cars," Johnson said. "The call that Chad made to stay out on tires really paid off. It wasn't easy to drive the car that loose, those guys on new tires behind me had a lot of speed and a lot of energy, they pushed me. This Lowe's Chevrolet did it man."
Kahne, meanwhile, made his bosses look like geniuses for switching from Dodges to Fords this season.
By putting the No. 9 Ford on the second row beside Johnson, he stopped the arch-rival Chevrolets from holding the first four spots in Sundays 500-mile NASCAR season opener.
Mark Martin, in the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet will start on the front row by virtue of their qualifying speeds made last Saturday.
Johnson said that the cars were so equal in the first of the Duels that he was willing to agree with Knaus' decision to stay out in order to get valued track position.
"Track position was everything. I could find my way up to the top five or six, but I could get any further because the cars were so equal," he said. "So I was in favour of the call. When they dropped the green flag, I couldn't get going like I wanted to but things worked out well and I stayed committed to the bottom and hung on to it."
Kahne credited his win to Kurt Busch, who pushed him to the front with his No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge.
"I felt like I was in a really good position and just needed to take advantage when I got the right push, and Kurt gave me that in turn one. I was able to sneak under Tony and from there I just tried to keep (Busch) behind me. It was close, but we were able to pull it off."
Now Kahne feels he has the car to beat the Chevrolet mob.
"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "I feel like we still have a few things we can do to make our car better. The track changed this week from last week a little bit, and I imagine it'll change a little more before Sunday, so we need to keep going in that direction on what we learned today.
"We have a great starting position and the Roush Yates Ford engine is really, really good. I'm excited for the race on Sunday."
The 43 drivers who will start on Sunday now have two days of practice to get ready for the 500 that is the richest and most prestigious of the NASCAR season.