The 2014 Budweiser Duels on Thursday proved to be yet another exciting precursor to NASCAR's early-season flagship event, the Daytona 500.
Austin Dillon already won the pole, and Martin Truex Jr. secured a spot in second as the front row for Sunday's big race. The rest of the field's positions were determined in two separate qualifying races on Thursday at Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway.
In the first race, Matt Kenseth beat a formidable outfit of competitors to win in a photo finish. Kenseth's margin of victory over Kevin Harvick was just 0.022 seconds.
After that, another thrilling race culminated with a massive crash on the final lap, which left Jimmie Johnson's car on fire and Truex Jr.'s vehicle incapacitated. Denny Hamlin emerged as the victor.
Here is an overview of the results from both races, followed by analysis of each individual race and what lies ahead as the Daytona 500 approaches.
|5||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||4|
Source: NASCAR.com. Harvick's result thrown out due to failed post-race inspection.
|8||Martin Truex Jr.||1|
As ESPN Stats & Info points out, the first and only other time Kenseth won a Duel race was in 2012—the same year he rode to the Daytona 500's victory lane:
Matt Kenseth: 2nd career Duel race win (won in 2012, went on to win Daytona 500)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 21, 2014
Bad news came Harvick's way, unfortunately, after he failed his post-race inspection, which nullified his stellar finish in the first race:
The No. 4 has failed post-race inspection. His #DAYTONA500 starting position will be determined by qualifying speed or points provisional.— NASCAR Stats (@NASCARStats) February 21, 2014
Kahne was part of the thrilling three-wide finish and led a lap en route to settling for third place. Despite falling short, he was pleased with his run and feels his car is ready to compete in one of the most prestigious races in the world:
We're fast and my @FarmersRacing Chevy is in one piece. Bring on the Daytona 500!— Kasey Kahne (@kaseykahne) February 21, 2014
Rounding out the top five of that race were Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came in fifth despite leading 14 of the 60 laps.
Fellow driver Elliott Sadler was thrilled with Kenseth's victory for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Danica Patrick finished in 14th and continues to adjust to life in the stock car after her prior experience in open-wheel racing. Her teammate Tony Stewart managed to come in 11th, which will create a difficult start for the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion.
Rookies Cole Whitt and Alex Bowman placed 12th and 15th, respectively, in the first race to qualify for the Daytona 500. Both drivers are talented and should go for broke in their first shot at NASCAR's biggest early-season stage.
Speaking of past champions, Brad Keselowski, the 2012 winner, dominated the second race before suffering a speeding penalty when he came in too hot into pit lane, per USA Today's Jeff Gluck:
Speeding penalty: KESELOWSKI— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) February 21, 2014
That was with about 20 laps remaining, and the problems were compounded when Keselowski suffered a flat tire. Thus, the pit stop wasn't even fruitful. Keselowski thankfully did well enough in the previous Daytona 500 qualifying to secure a spot in Sunday's race.
At that point in the second race, a ton of star power was up front, per the NASCAR Stats Twitter account:
Lap 40: Hamlin scored as the race leader. Ku Busch 2nd, Johnson 3rd, Gordon 4th and McMurray 5th. #NASCAR— NASCAR Stats (@NASCARStats) February 21, 2014
Then came the collision, which resulted when Johnson collided with Jamie McMurray and crashed into the outside wall. Amid a ton of confusion at the end, Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press provided some clarity about the cause of the accident with a quote from Johnson through his radio:
Well, Hamlin won. Bowyer flipped. Johnson wrecked another car. Truex wrecked his front row car. Waltrip tagged the wall hard.— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) February 21, 2014
"Correct, ran out of gas," Johnson radioed after hit.— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) February 21, 2014
Johnson apologized after the race to his fellow drivers for spoiling their runs:
Jimmie Johnson tells MRN: "I ran out of gas at the most inopportune time and right in front of everybody. I feel real bad about it."— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) February 21, 2014
Johnson had nowhere to go amid the heated competition, and McMurray got him loose at the wrong time in the middle of a turn, leading to the accident.
To focus on the positives here, Hamlin has a chance to make history:
The first race was smooth, while the second race created a ton of uncertainty with regard to the Daytona 500 picture. That makes the marquee NASCAR showcase as open as ever heading into Sunday's spectacle. Dillon has to feel thankful that he came away unscathed, but Truex Jr. has to be disappointed.
Truex Jr.'s excellent car has now been totaled. Although he will still start up front, it has to be a crusher for his crew to build back up after gaining so much momentum. Now, it will likely be easier for Truex Jr. to be passed early in the race, which could lead to an earlier shakeup in the field on Sunday.