Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed the rest of the Daytona 500 field that he will be the driver to beat Sunday after he scored a dominating win in the first of the two Can-Am Duel qualifying races Thursday. Kyle Busch won the second Duel that ended with a wild finish and mangled metal.
Earnhardt started the first Duel second behind Daytona 500 pole winner and rookie Chase Elliott but it took him only three laps to make his presence known as he took the lead from his young teammate. The field soon strung out single file with only Denny Hamlin the only real challenge to Earnhardt. Hamlin took the lead after the races only caution for a solo spin by Cole Whitt on lap 42. Hamlin held the lead until lap 55 of the 60, when Earnhardt made diving move to take the lead and hold on for the win. It was the 17th career Daytona win for Earnhardt and his fifth Duel win.
Joey Logano was second, rookie Ryan Blaney was an impressive third, with Kevin Harvick fourth and Hamlin fifth. Elliott was sixth.
“We knew it was a really good car,” Earnhardt said. “A lot of people don’t talk about it but it won the 150 last year, so it’s got three wins, a second and third.”
“I did a lot of blocking tonight,” he added. “Nothing too crazy. I’m glad it didn’t have to get that way. I was just defending those guys and the moves they were putting together. It was a real challenge. There are some great cars out there. There are some really, really good guys out there that are starting to become really good on these plate tracks.”
Michael McDowell was the driver to transfer in the first Duel, Josh Wise and Cole Whitt were out. Brian Scott who crashed on the last lap will race on Sunday but will be forced to go to a backup car.
Matt Kenseth led the field of 22 to the green for the second Duel and held the lead until lap 23 when debris on the grill of his Toyota forced him to dropped behind his teammate Kyle Busch. From there Busch would hold the lead.
After pit stops, Busch kept the lead but Kenseth had dropped back in the pack. In the closing laps Kenseth was trying to claw his way back to the front and Busch looked like a sitting duck when Casey Mears in second ran out of fuel with two laps to go. On the final lap however Jamie McMurray got together racing for second with Jimmie Johnson. The results set off a multi-car crash that involved Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch.
“I was trying to block the 48 (Jimmie Johnson),” McMurray said. “I had stalled out right when I got to the 18 car (Kyle Busch), and I didn’t think the 48 had much of a run either. It felt like our momentum was about the same. I saw the replay and I still don’t know if he was up to my rear bumper or if it was the air that made his car turn. I’m just not sure.”
NASCAR ruled that Kyle Busch had made it to the new overtime line and threw the caution ending the race and handing the win to Kyle Busch, his third Duel victory.
“I guess it was quiet and calm there for a long time and the last lap just went kind of crazy,” Busch said. “Great car. These guys at Joe Gibbs Racing do a phenomenal job this winter building some new pieces for us to come down here with and have some fun. Looking forward to starting the Daytona 500 in the fourth spot but I think I will actually get the outside front row now that (Matt) Kenseth got caught up in that mess and tore up his car.”
McMurray was second, Kurt Busch was third, Carl Edwards fourth and Ty Dillon fifth. Matt Dibenedetto was able to race his way into the field with a ninth place finish. Robert Richardson will also start the Daytona 500. David Gilliland and Reed Sorenson failed to make the field. Johnson, Kenseth and Truex will go to back up cars relegating them to the read of the field Sunday. The result was especially painful for Kenseth as he had locked up a second place starting spot in Daytona 500 qualifying last Sunday.
The 58th running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway will get the green flag Sunday just after 1:00 p.m.. Live coverage will be on Fox starting at noon. The results for the first Duel can be found here, the results for the second here. The full starting lineup for Sunday can be found here.