The field is set for Sunday’s Daytona 500 following a pair of exciting finishes in Thursday’s Can-Am Duels that determined the starting order for Sunday's big show.
The Duel results directly transfer as the start order for the inside and outside lanes for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Here is a look at the action from each race.
Dale Jr. Powers Past Hamlin for Duel 1 Win
Earnhardt led a race-high 43 laps and comfortably cruised to a Can-Am Duel win for the second straight year in Thursday's opener, holding off defending Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano on the final lap.
Earnhardt relinquished the lead after the one round of pit stops after the Lap 40 mark, but regained the top spot with a remarkable pass on the inside line when coming to the start/finish line with five to go.
It was a textbook Earnhardt—particularly given his late father trademarked the maneuver during his iconic career at the World Center of Racing, and Dale Jr. has mastered it since.
NASCAR researcher Matt Willis highlighted Earnhardt's success at the track:
Earnhardt’s win came with an extra dose of emotion on the 15-year anniversary of his father’s death at the same track.
John Morris of Fox Sports noted how special it was to see the driver of the No. 88 car continue the family legacy:
With the win, Earnhardt will roll off on the second row in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Here are the results from Duel 1:
|Can-Am Duel 1 at Daytona — Results|
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
|10||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.|
And here is a glimpse Earnhardt storming into Victory Lane, courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports:
The opening Duel was a relatively clean race aside from one caution.
Despite lugging around the high banks of Daytona at 200-plus miles per hour, most drivers kept their machines intact for Sunday’s big show.
The only caution came on Lap 43, when Cole Whitt lost control on Turns 1 and 2 while aggressively trying to slingshot around Michael McDowell.
As he wiggled back and forth, Whitt’s car fishtailed on a bump draft from Regan Smith that sent him sliding vulnerably between the turns, narrowly missing Brian Scott and David Ragan, as Fox Sports NASCAR showed:
Smith wasn’t pleased with Whitt’s aggressive racing, per Geoffrey Miller of Athlon Sports:
Whitt elaborated on the exchange, per Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com:
Racing radio host Bucky Birt commended Whitt’s maneuverability:
However, after extensive attempts at repairing his car, Whitt was forced to retire to the garage, paving the way for McDowell to take the final unchartered position among Duel 1 competitors with a 14th-place finish.
There were a few instances in which debris came into play, most notably for Austin Dillon's No. 3 car, which appeared to have a bumper bar dangling in the middle laps, per Bob Pockrass of ESPN.com:
But whatever was there—it wasn’t metal, as there were no sparks—eventually broke off in between turns, and the race resumed under green.
Separately, Ryan Blaney overcame an early vibration in his engine that forced him to pit at the halfway mark. He made up ground on the caution and surged through the pack to finish third.
Pole-sitter Chase Elliott led the opening two laps before succumbing to Earnhardt and riding to a sixth-place finish. He secured the No. 1 starting position for Sunday’s 500 with the top speed in last weekend’s qualifying session.
The Duels also served as a great test run for drivers to gauge how their cars will handle in race-like conditions for Sunday’s 500.
Though Thursday’s event took place in high-50-degree temperatures with 12 mph winds at night—substantially cooler than the mid-70-degree temperatures and 7 mph winds forecast for Sunday—there were ample opportunities for competitors to see how their cars might react Sunday.
For example, there was a lengthy single-file run in the early stages of Duel 1, when Brad Keselowski trailed Earnhardt in second place and slid out of the draft a few times to gauge how his car would respond to an attempted pass in both the inside and outside lanes.
Further back in traffic, Denny Hamlin was more aggressive, sliding out of the main group and bringing a line of cars with him. As Hamlin indicated to Joe Gibbs Racing, handling is key at Daytona:
Those types of situations make the Duels unique as the qualifying method for the Daytona 500. Giving the fans a pair of exciting races is merely a plus.
Busch Avoids Last-Lap Melee to Win Duel 2
Kyle Busch took the checkered flag in Thursday’s finale that featured a six-car melee at the front as the pack steamed into Turn 1 on the final lap.
Riding in third and attempting to make an outside pass, Jimmie Johnson was blocked by Jamie McMurray in the high banks and sent spinning. As he clipped Kurt Busch turning inward, Johnson slid back up the track and collected AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth, who was slated to start second on Sunday.
Here is a look at the race-determining wreck, courtesy of NASCAR:
Kyle Busch, just ahead of the tangle, remained unscathed and circled back to the finish line to cap a race-high 35 laps led. McMurray, who played a hand in the wreck, finished second. Kurt Busch limped to the checkers with body damage but maintained his third-place finish. Carl Edwards and Ty Dillon rounded out the top five.
Here is a look at the remaining results:
|Can-Am Duel 2 at Daytona — Results|
|14||Martin Truex Jr.|
Now with a crumbled race car, Kenseth will need to go to a backup for the Daytona 500, which will force him to relinquish his No. 2 start spot and go to the rear of the field.
That means, by virtue of the win, Kyle Busch will start on the outside front row as he guns for his first win in the Great American Race. He'll also begin his Sprint Cup title defense in the 2016 campaign.
Among the unchartered contenders in Duel 2, Matt DiBenedetto claimed the transfer spot after finishing ninth, and Robert Richardson Jr. secured a position based on his qualifying time Sunday, per Pockrass. The 500 will be Richardson’s only race this year, per Jeff Gluck of USA Today.
Before the last-lap calamity, Thursday’s finale was remarkably uneventful.
From the pole, Kenseth led the first 23 laps but was forced to relinquish the lead after picking up trash on his grill. He slid back into second behind Busch, then pulled up on his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and used the draft to remove the trash off his bumper.
Busch then held the top spot rest of the way—two laps notwithstanding during a green-flag run of pit stops.
The cars ran single file for nearly the entire affair, and the excitement was in the race featuring the unchartered teams trying to get in.
Earnhardt shared in his Victory Lane interview with Fox Sport 1 his winning car’s name is “Amelia,” and that it was also victorious in last year’s Duel:
We knew it was a real good car. A lot of people don’t talk about it, but it won the 150 [Duel] last year too. So it’s got three wins and a second and third last year. It’s a great car. Another win in Daytona for the Earnhardts—keep adding to the legacy. We’re up there in the 50s now with all the wins we got here, so I’m real glad to be able to do that.
The two-time Daytona 500 champ went on to say Logano, Hamlin and others presented plenty of challenges in the latter stages.
"I did a lot of blocking tonight," Earnhardt said, per FS1. "Nothing too crazy, but glad it didn’t have to get that way. Just defending those guys and the moves they were putting together was a real challenge."
He continued by elaborating on what it takes to hold off the likes the incredibly talented restrictor plate drivers, per Marty Smith of ESPN.com:
Later, Gluck shared a picture of McMurray watching the replay of the last-lap crash he was involved in Duel 2:
But it was Johnson who took the blame for the wreck, per Nate Ryan of NBC Sports:
Jordan Bianchi of SB Nation shared the backup cars for Johnson and Kenseth are already being prepped:
Kenseth and Johnson are each former Cup champions and two-time winners of the Great American Race. While starting at the back isn’t ideal, they’ll have 200 laps to make up ground Sunday.