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David Gilliland grabs pole in unpredictable Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

David GillilandJoey LoganoMatt KensethDaytona International SpeedwayReed SorensonLandon CassillDavid Ragan

Starting at the front at Daytona is one of the world’s biggest lies.

Don’t believe for a minute it will have anything to do with actually winning a race.

So congrats to David Gilliland, Reed Sorenson and Landon Cassill, all unexpected front-runners for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway Saturday night.

But given the dynamics of restrictor-plate racing, crazy aerodynamic pushes and the proverbial rubble of stock cars that will be worthless by the end of the night, good luck to all of you trying to fend off the other 40 drivers from eventually catching up.

“We all call it a crapshoot and there is a lot of luck involved,” said Cassill, who qualified third late Friday afternoon. “I do think there are ways you can improve your odds;  then again, it still can be a crapshoot.”

Gilliland, who drives for Front Row Racing and is hard-pressed to compete with the multi-car superpowers, understands that plate racing is the great equalizer.

It gives him and teammate David Ragan, starting eighth, a chance at victory for qualification into the postseason’s Chase for the Cup.

But Gilliland already has scored a big plus for his résumé: He will be part of the 2015 Sprint Unlimited next season at Daytona after notching his first pole of the season.

But first, the focus is on the 2014 season, with only nine regular-season races remaining before the 16-driver field for the Chase is set.

“This is probably the last shot that we feel like we have,” he said.

Gilliland, who ran a lap of 199.322 mph, benefitted from the rain-shortened format, which cut the scheduled three qualifying runs to one.

The only likely championship-contender in the Top 5 is six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

For Johnson, and the rest of the field, it’s business as usual.

Try to avoid “The Big One” and hope you stick around for The Big Finish.

Such is the lottery-luck dynamics of Daytona, not to be confused with the benign qualifying strategy.

The new group qualifying format brings an odd vibe to restrictor-plate tracks.

The majority of drivers don’t have to race to get in, nor do they want to race like a bunch of mad men (or women) for fear of tearing up their car.

It led to a “herding cats” feel to strategy, with some cars being more aggressive and others laying back.

It’s gamesmanship to the Nth degree.

“There were cars doing 80 and there were cars doing 200 and nobody wanted to go,” Matt Kenseth said. “Everybody wanted to be in the back of the pack and try to catch the front to get a lap, so it was pretty chaotic.”

Kenseth’s estimate seemed on the high side to Joey Logano.

“I don’t know about [qualifying being] crazy,” Logano said. “We were only going 5 miles per hour for a little bit.

“It’s just kind of frustrating to try to figure it all out and what’s going on.”

Gilliland will be looking for treasure on the track in hopes of replacing something that was lost earlier this week: His wedding ring.

Down for a working family vacation and staying at a local condo, Gilliland was swimming in the Atlantic Ocean with his wife and daughter when his wedding ring popped off in the water.

They looked for it for an hour and a half to no avail.

“It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” he said.

Much like finding Victory Lane at Daytona.

“Anything can happen,” Gilliland said.

Including an unlikely guy starting up front, and surviving all the chaotic obstacles to finish in the same spot.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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David GillilandJoey LoganoMatt KensethDaytona International SpeedwayReed SorensonLandon CassillDavid Ragan
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