Casey Mears breaks his rear axle housing bringing out a late race caution in Sonoma.
Driver of the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet gets into the 43-car field Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live " Buy Daytona 500 gear RELATED: Daytona 500 starting lineup DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Casey Mears' hopes for making his 11th Daytona 500 start turned murky in a cloud of smoke early during Thursday night's Budweiser Duels. When the smoke lifted from all the crashes in both 150-mile qualifiers, Mears' murky future became clear -- he's in. Mears was among the biggest names in limbo for the 43-car field in Sunday's Great American Race (1 p.m. ET, FOX), the season opener for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Engine failure after just 17 laps in the opening 60-lap race sidelined the 36-year-old veteran, who finished 26th in last year's final standings. "I don't have any thoughts right now other than everything's bad," a dejected Mears said after his early exit. "The nature of this place has been really good to us in the past, and obviously when something like this happens you just feel so helpless. It's really out of your control. You want a fighting chance." Those left on the outside of the elite group of 43: Alex Bowman, Jeb Burton, Ron Hornaday Jr., Justin Marks, Brian Scott and Josh Wise -- each of whom endured their own brand of heartache on a cold Thursday night in Florida. After the first race, Mears joined AJ Allmendinger, Johnny Sauter and others in tense moments of scoreboard-watching in the second Duel race, waiting to see if their body of work in Speedweeks would be enough to make the main event. Allmendinger, a qualifier for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs last year, wound up with enough stature in the team owner points to advance; Sauter -- 12th in Sunday's qualifying (after Hamlin's time was disallowed), but with a team 41st in owner points last season -- made the race on the basis of his qualifying speed. WATCH: Sauter, Allmendinger involved in wreck Mears was mired in the thick of a dense pack with the opening 60-lap qualifier barely a quarter of the way in, riding the high line in hopes of clinching a starting berth. Just past the start-finish line, the engine in the Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet went south with a hole in the oil pan, the car smoking steadily as he lost power. By the time the car was pushed back to the garage, Mears seemed resigned to going home early though two-thirds of the race remained. He wound up with a last-place result in the 25-car field. With just a 28th-fastest lap from last Sunday's qualifying and the team's 26th-place position in the 2014 standings to fall back on, it was close to not being enough. "There's so many things that are so cool about this race track, yet there's so many things that are out of your control," Mears said. "When we have something like this happen, it's difficult any way it happens. It doesn't look good, obviously. I'm guessing we're going home unless something major happens in the second race or something happens in this one. I don't even know what to say. It just rips your heart out. "We're so good at these places, yet these are the places that anything can happen, and anything happened tonight." Sauter took the worst of his collision with Allmendinger in the 2.5-mile track's trioval, despite taking it easy in the first half of the race. "I just was riding along on the top side there, just trying to mind my own business," Sauter said. "We were in a tight spot there going back to qualifying, if you're in on speed or not. We deliberated about it all week, just do we try to be conservative, do we try to race. I thought I was doing everything right, just hanging out in the top groove." MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news PLAY: Sign up for Fantasy Live WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView today FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Casey Mears has engine failure during Duel 1 of the Budweiser Duel at Daytona.
Casey Mears and Marcos Ambrose's post-race discussion leads to punches thrown after the Toyota Owners 400 in Richmond.
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Mears on 'NASCAR Race Hub': 'Marcos and I had a really good conversation'
Video shows Ambrose's punch hitting Mears in the face
The No. 13 backs it hard into the wall when Mears locks up his brakes.
Host Matthew Dillner takes you through a very hot Daytona International Speedway NSCS garage in this edition of GarageCam.
Casey Mears reflects on his Coca-Cola 600 win in 2007 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.