Thursday was a very cold night at Daytona International Speedway, but it was a very good night for Hendricks Racing drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson winners of the two Duels at Daytona, 60-lap heat races which fill out the field for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
43 cars fill the grid for the Daytona 500, while 50 or more try to make the race. Grid spots are determined by qualifying speed, owner points, or a top-16 finish in one of the Duels. Former series champs also get a free spot in the big show.
2014 Daytona 500 champ Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first Duel ahead of team mate Jeff Gordon who slipped past Joey Logano in the last few hundred yards. Earnhardt, Gordon and Matt Kennseth swapped the lead through the first 40 laps, when Earnhardt took over for the remainder.
Trevor Bayne hit the wall with nine laps to go; Matt Kennseth decided to pit for right-side tires, in case the race went though a few Green/White/Checker finish attempts.
Joey Logano made a late-race charge, taking third with three laps to go, but got stuck behind Earnhardt in the high grove. Logano tried to drop down, but Gordon timed his last effort and squeezed by on the bottom, pinning Logano and taking second. Gordon had already earned the pole for the Daytona 500, giving Hendricks Motorsports the top three starting positions for Sunday’s race.
Earnhardt started dead last in the first Duel.
“We have had a great car all week,” Earnhardt told NASCAR.com. “I’m so glad to be able to get through the Duel in one piece, because I know how good this race car is. We have a couple more practices to go through and try to stay out of trouble during those and put this thing on the grid. We’re going to have a fun day on Sunday.”
For a complete list of finishers, please see: http://www.nascar.com/en_us/sprint-cup-series/standings/results/2015/budweiser-duel-1.html
Jimmie Johnson led 40 of the 60 laps of the second Duel, with the Busch brothers and Martin Truex Jr. trading the next few positions for the first third of the race.
“It’s a special night,” Johnson said. “What a race car. I’m stoked for my teammate [Dale Earnhardt Jr.] to win the first Duel. We won the second, and Jeff [Gordon] and I have the front row locked down. It’s been an awesome week for all our Hendrick Motorsports cars.”
David Regan, working hard to race his way into the 500, spun in the first third of the race, but never gave up. He ultimately made up the lost laps and finished well enough to earn a spot in the 500.
Kyle Busch was penalized for speeding on pit lane during this caution; he also made up the lost lap, and made it all the way back to the front of the pack.
The yellow flags flew again when Jeb Burton moved into Sam Hornish on lap 37, collecting Austin Dillon and Alex Bowman and ruining Burton and Bowman’s chances to make the race.
The Duel went back to green on lap 41; a few laps later Kurt Busch was penalized for passing cars below the yellow line marking the lower limit of the track. This left brother Kyle as the only Busch up front, chasing Johnson with Greg Biffle right behind him.
At this point here were 16 cars running in a pack with a handful of straggler struggling to catch up. If everyone had just calmed down and held position, the first 16 would all have made the 500. Naturally, as racers, every driver wanted to win, so every driver pushed as hard as possible, which led to Denny Hamlin setting off another multi-car collision with only four laps left to run..
Hamlin got too close to Danica Patrick in a corner, and might even have nudged her. Patrick spun, collecting Bobby Labonte and Brian Scott. Scott’s car was ruined, and her lost his chance at the 500. Hamlin’s car was unscathed; Patrick’s car sustained damage to the left rear corner, but the team was able to cobble it back together well enough to get her back on track.
The race finished with a Green/White/Checker; Jimmie Johnson took the win ahead of Kyle Busch, with Carl Edwards beating out Biffle for third.
Amazingly, Danica Patrick, aided by Stewart-Haas Racing team mate Kurt Busch, fought her way from he back of the pack into tenth in the final two laps, earning her spot in the Daytona 500.
Patrick was already driving her back-up car after Hamlin had wrecked her in exactly the same way in a practice session earlier in the week. After the race, she made her displeasure quite clear in an animated discussion with Hamlin. Her anger was doubtless tempered by the fact that she made the race.
“He cut across my rear bumper and pulls the back end around,” Patrick told ESPN. “I get being close. But he’s been going to my left rear and it just gets it light. I don’t want to have these issues, but if we’re going to have these issues then we’re going to have to deal with them. We can’t be putting ourselves out of our race at someone else’s expense and nothing’s happened to him.”
For complete results of Duel 2, please see: http://www.nascar.com/en_us/sprint-cup-series/standings/results/2015/budweiser-duel-2.html
The Daytona 500, the first points-paying race of the 2015 NASCAR season, takes the green flag at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 22. Tickets are available through the Daytona International Speedway website.