Full Duel results and Daytona 500 starting order
For much of the time on Thursday night it seemed that the agreed policy was to put safety first, prioritise protecting the race cars and for everyone to make a quiet, trouble-free night of it - in stark contrast to the costly Wednesday practice that had torn up several cars in two different multi-car accidents.
Accordingly, in the first of Thursday night's Duels Matt Kenseth crossed the line first just ahead of Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne at the conclusion of an uninterrupted 60-lap races that didn't see a single yellow flag. The race had been led early on by Daytona 500 polesitter Austin Dillon, but with nothing to gain and everything to lose the 2014 Cup rookie conceded discretion to be the better part of valour and slid back down the field to relative safety for the duration.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. led for the remainder of the first stint but then locked up while coming onto pit road for the sole round of pit stops, which allowed Kenseth to claim an emphatic lead for the second half of the race although he came under pressure at the flag by late lunges from Harvick and Kahne. In Harvick's case it proved a moot effort, with the #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet subsequently failing post-race inspection after it was deemed the car exceeded the maximum split on the trackbar.
"I still think we need to get a little better," said Kenseth when asked about his prospects for winning Sunday's race, having claimed third place on the grid. "The car was really good if it's in the right position obviously and we were able to hang on. A lot of strong cars out there so there's a lot of guys that didn't run so good on speedways last year that were really, really strong today. I think it's going to be a good race coming up next and a great race on Sunday."
Josh Wise qualified for the Daytona 500 with six place in the race and Cole Whitt also made it onto the grid after finishing in 12th position. By contrast, Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch suffered splitter problems early on which led to a lengthy mid-race pit stop that left him half a lap off the leaders; he was joined there by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who had been following Earnhardt onto pit lane when the #88 locked up, and Stenhouse was forced to switch to a four-tyre stop after flat-spotting his own tyres as a result. Both men still made it comfortably into Sunday's race, on owner points and qualifying speed respectively.
The second Duel seemed to be heading along a similar caution-free path, with Brad Keselowski taking the lead of the race early and looking in dominant form all the way through to the mid-race pit stop, at which point the #2 was hit with a speeding penalty. Keselowski locked up his tyres coming back down pit road which contributed to a left front puncture than forced a third visit to pit lane.
Meanwhile a quick pit stop had put Denny Hamlin back out in the lead ahead of Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. There were concerns that perhaps Hamlin might be too short on fuel as a result of the haste, but in fact it was Jimmie Johnson who ran dry on the final lap and abruptly lost pace, resulting in Jamie McMurray making contact with the left rear of the #48 that tipped it into a spin and triggered a multi-car wreck that not only wrote off Johnson and McMurray but also did heavy damage to Martin Truex Jr.'s #78 - a switch to the backup will now cost Truex his front row grid spot for Sunday. Also affected by the fallout was Clint Bowyer, who was flipped into a mid-air somersault by David Ragan before landing right side-up albeit too heavily for the suspension to cope with; he too will need a back-up car on Sunday.
"I feel terrible," said Johnson, who had tried to indicate that he was running out of fuel but had no where to go to move out of the way. "To tear up that many race cars, to see the #15 flip, I feel terrible and certainly want to apologize to everyone. I tried to get up out of the way; I had my hand out of the side.
"Last lap coming to the chequered, there is so much going on right there," he added. "So much energy in the pack that I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out, because guys warned me about it: and it did. Thankfully, everyone is all right, and I certainly feel bad for the torn-up race cars."
The yellow on the final lap froze the field at the moment of the accident and meant that Denny Hamlin was declared the winner of the race, his second of the week after also successfully clinching last Saturday's Daytona Unlimited. "Once that snowball starts to roll, it's hard to stop it," he said on victory lane. "And right now, we're just on a heck of a run."
The result means that Hamlin will start from fourth place on the grid on Sunday, putting him alongside team mate Kenseth who will take the green in third place. Ahead of them will be polesitter Austin Dillon, while second-place man Martin Truex Jr. will now have to drop to the back before the start; his younger brother Ryan was also involved in the last lap accident and failed to qualify for the race as a result.
Full Duel results and Daytona 500 starting order