Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano and Florida native Aric Almirola each won their Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway Thursday night — the event setting the starting order for Sunday‘s DAYTONA 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
It was a Ford sweep at Daytona, but the two races played out very differently.
Logano‘s No. 22 Team Penske Ford led 25 of the 60 caution-free laps in the opening race, his Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney led a race best 30 laps, finishing third – behind Logano, and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell, who crossed the finish line a mere .018-seconds after Logano.
In the late race, Almirola led only 17 laps but took the lead for good in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford with two laps remaining and held off fellow Ford driver Austin Cindric and Chase Elliott by a slight .122-second in a race that featured more drama; two caution periods including one that ultimately took out the dominant car.
Kyle Busch led the most laps (28) in the second Duel, but his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was hit from behind by Daniel Suarez’s No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet and wrecked from the lead with 18 laps remaining.
“Lots of pushing and shoving,” Busch said afterward, hopeful the team could repair the car and not have to go to a back-up for the DAYTONA 500 on Sunday.
“Doing everything you can to hang on and do best you can to keep it straight,” Busch said of the incident. “Finally overloaded the left rear and hooked it to the right. Hate it for all my guys. Built a fast Chevy Camaro and was fun to drive. Had a long way to go and don‘t understand [this] but it is what it is.”
That six-car accident also damaged Austin Hill‘s Chevrolet so badly he had to pull it into the garage. That gave the final DAYTONA 500 transfer position to IndyCar Series regular Conor Daly, whose No. 50 TMT Racing Chevrolet finished the race 17th in the 21-car field, a lap down. The car had a mechanical problem Wednesday night and wasn‘t even able to turn a pole qualifying lap.
“Well, we were inherently unlucky for the last 36 hours, but we got lucky,” Daly said. “I wish I could have said that I drove it in on pure pace, but it was just crazy.
“When we went out there, the car was bouncing around. I had no idea what was going on. I thought the drivetrain was broken, and [crew chief] Tony [Eury Jr.] just made it better every time. We got lucky with the yellows to try to get some experience, but it is pretty crazy.
“This race, I‘ve watched it for so many years and so much crazy stuff can happen and thankfully we were on the right side of the craziness. It‘s pretty amazing.”
“I‘m sure none of you expected to see me here, but we changed everything but the car‘s color in that race,” Daly told reporters with a smile, noting he already had 170 text messages as he did post-race interviews.
The first Duel was relatively calm — with no caution periods. Fords dominated the race. RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher and 2021 DAYTONA 500 winner Michael McDowell rounded out the top five in their Ford Mustangs. Kevin Harvick, who is retiring at the end of the 2023 season, was sixth in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford after riding Logano‘s bumper for more than 20 laps at the race end.
“The execution of this race is everything,” Logano said, thanking his Team Penske team. “You know most likely there won‘t be a caution, so you‘ve got to do a good job on pit road cycling yourself to the front but then I‘m sitting there as the leader and I‘m thinking I‘m a sitting duck this is not where you want to be. I was hoping they would start racing back there, which they did, and it ended up working out for me.
“When the 20 got to me, I saw Blaney was behind me and I thought, ‘that‘s my buddy, I‘ve got to stick with him.‘ I knew the 20 would make the run to the outside and I probably wouldn‘t be able to defend that and just waited for the 12 to push me through there. So good Penske effort there to get the Duel win.”
Toyota‘s Bubba Wallace was sixth in the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota followed by Zane Smith in the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports car. Smith‘s effort was good enough to earn the first of the two open DAYTONA 500 starting positions.
“Those duels are a little nerve-wracking but I kind of just followed by teammate through there and he was a huge, huge help,” Smith said of McDowell. “That was really my gameplan to just stick to what Michael does, he‘s obviously very successful at superspeedways.”
Chandler Smith, driving a third Kaulig Racing Toyota, finished 18th in the opening Duel and joins Hill in not making the 2023 DAYTONA 500 field.
As for Almirola, it marks his second Duel victory, the fourth for his Stewart-Haas Racing team. The Tampa, Fla. native — who originally announced he was going to retire at the end of the 2022 season only to re-commit to the team – earned his first career NASCAR Cup Series win at Daytona International Speedway in the 2014 summer race.
“I did have my hands full,” Almirola said, adding, “But man, this is so cool. Daytona is such a special place to me. I grew up sitting I those grandstands dreaming about racing here. I want that one on Sunday (Daytona 500) though. …. I know Sunday‘s the big one, we‘re going to keep focused on that one. The job‘s not finished.”
The 40-car field is now set for Sunday‘s DAYTONA 500 including the “open cars” of seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and action star Travis Pastrana who both advanced based on qualifying speed. It will mark the NASCAR Cup Series debut for Pastrana, who was also among those collected in the second race‘s six-car accident.
“Learned a lot about where the car works,” Pastrana said of his No. 67 23XI Racing Toyota. “I think we‘ll still be able to run that same car, I just didn‘t get it slowed down quite in time to avoid the chaos right in front me.
“We were just kind of running in the back and watching everything that was happening, seeing which lanes worked, how my car worked best. It was a lot of fun. Super intense those first couple laps. … but that was a great time.”
— NASCAR News Wire —