With a deft move to the inside in the final corner of the first of two Bluegreen Vacations Duel 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday night, 19th-place starter Tyler Reddick took the checkered flag and earned the inside second-row starting position for Sunday‘s DAYTONA 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

And by the skin of his teeth, in that same Duel, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Jimmie Johnson edged J.J. Yeley for one of the final two starting spots in the Great American Race.

In the two races that set the field for the DAYTONA 500—and in which the Toyotas managed a sweep after a lackluster qualifying effort on Wednesday—Christopher Bell led only the final lap of the second Duel, holding off 2022 DAYTONA 500 winner Austin Cindric for the victory.

As Bell was securing the outside starting spot on the second row for Sunday‘s race, Kaz Grala edged B.J. McLeod for the final spot in the field by. 0.067 seconds. Grala ran 12th to McLeod‘s 14th in a battle that wasn‘t settled until the last few yards of the final lap.

As Reddick was outfoxing three Hendrick Chevrolets at the front of the field on Lap 60 of the first Duel—clearing Chase Elliott and diving to the inside of Kyle Larson‘s Camaro—Johnson was in dire peril of missing the 500 in his first competitive race in a Legacy Motor Club Toyota.

Johnson trailed Yeley by a car-length through Turn 4, but Yeley moved to the top lane, and Johnson shoved the Chevrolet of Ross Chastain through a gap in the middle lane and used the momentum to overtake Yeley as the cars approached the checkered flag.

As a result, Johnson will race on Sunday, and Yeley will not. In the scramble to the finish line, Johnson finished 12th and Yeley 16th.

“I‘ve never been in a position like this before, and I have such a greater appreciation for everyone before me that‘s tried to race their way in,” said Johnson, who overcame a spin with 10 laps left to edge Yeley for the available spot.

“It‘s very stressful. I‘m very thankful we got this Carvana Toyota into this race. I knew the first half of the race was going too easy. I knew there‘d be a challenge thrown at us, and we got it just in time. Hats off to J.J. Yeley. He put up a heck of a fight in a very competitive car.”

A rueful Yeley second-guessed the closing move that didn‘t work.

“Side-by-side coming to two (laps) to go, I thought we were in really good shape,” Yeley said. “Coming into Turn 3 (on the final lap), I wasn‘t counting my chickens, but I was getting close. Saw there was some contact. Someone in the middle lost a lot of momentum.

“I made a split-second decision to go to the outside, carry the momentum, clear him, make the racetrack two-wide where he couldn’t pass. He stayed in the middle. The 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) pushed him. The momentum carried him all the way to the checkered flag.

“It sucks. Two years ago we were close. Just couldn’t get it.”

As if knowing his victory was a sidebar to the drama surrounding Johnson, Reddick kept his postrace interview to a minimum.

“Great way to start off the weekend,” said Reddick, who led only the final lap in his No. 45 23XI Toyota and beat runner-up Elliott to the finish line by 0.056 seconds. “This thing is a beast. It’s a great way to kick off the brand-new (sponsor‘s) product. Go out and get some Hard Tea, have a good time tonight. I know we are.”

Bell‘s victory followed a massive wreck in Turn 1 on Lap 48. Defending series champion Ryan Blaney took a jarring hit after contact from Kyle Busch‘s Chevrolet—with a shot to Busch‘s Camaro from Brad Keselowski behind him–turned the Chevrolet of Willian Byron into Blaney‘s Ford and ignited an 11-car melee.

Byron‘s car had gotten loose and lost pace, stacking the field up behind him. The wreck eliminated Blaney, Busch, Riley Herbst and Noah Gragson.

“I was just getting a push from the No. 6 (Keselowski) there, and the No. 24 (Byron) I saw kind of got messed up, out of line and slowed down,” Busch explained. “I tried to lift and roll out of the gas smoothly. I was still gaining too fast, and then I got all the way out of the gas. Got bumped again from behind and just accordioned into the No. 24 and sent him spinning.

“You don‘t want to hit a guy in the tri-oval. I‘ve been there, I‘ve done that. I‘ve also rolled out of here in an ambulance before doing that, so I know it‘s not the right thing to do, but sometimes you don‘t have a choice, and I turned the No. 24 sideways and caused a wreck.”

Bell restarted fourth with eight laps left and surged into the lead on the final circuit.

“Yeah, it feels good,” Bell said. “These (superspeedway) races, man, I don’t know what to think of ’em. Me and Adam Stevens, my crew chief, we have a running joke: I say these races are 100-percent luck. I know that’s not true, but it seems like we’ve been struggling to get to the end of it. I know I’ve been a common denominator in a lot of the wrecks. Feels good to do everything well today.”

Grala, who failed to qualify for last year‘s DAYTONA 500 in his only attempt at a Cup race in 2023, found redemption this year in the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford.

“Just really proud of everybody at Front Row Motorsports,” Grala said. “They worked so hard the last 24 hours to get the car ready to race today. Some trouble yesterday. Really cool to be able to get it in the show for them. Real big opportunity for me. Excited to be here on Sunday again.”

By virtue of his second-place finish in the first Duel, Elliott will line up on the inside of the third row on Sunday, with the rest of the Duel 1 cars behind him in finishing order. Alex Bowman was third on Thursday, followed by Sunoco rookie Carson Hocevar and Erik Jones, who led the Toyota contingent with a 22nd-place run in Wednesday‘s time trials.

The second Duel set the outside row for the 500, with three-time DAYTONA 500 winner Denny Hamlin securing the outside fourth-row starting spot with a third-place finish. John Hunter Nemechek and Harrison Burton were fourth and fifth in Duel 2.

Joey Logano won the DAYTONA 500 pole in Wednesday‘s qualifying session, with Michael McDowell claiming the second starting position

— NASCAR Newswire —

See the Duel #1 race results and Duel #2 race results.

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