After sweeping qualifying for the Daytona 500 in the sun and warmth of last Sunday afternoon, it was pretty much the same story on a chilly Thursday night as both Budweiser Duel races were also won by Hendrick Motorsports drivers.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first of the heat races deciding the starting grid line-up for this weekend's Sprint Cup Series championship, crossing the line 0.165s ahead of his team mate Jeff Gordon, while Jimmie Johnson won the second by the slightly narrower margin of 0.125s from Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch.
See full Budweiser Duel heat race results
In fact neither Gordon nor Johnson had any need to perform well in their Duel races, as the qualifying format for the Daytona 500 meant that they had already been locked in on the front row after setting the two fastest times in group qualifying last Sunday. But being racers, neither man was content to sit back and let others hog the glory of the chequered flag if they could possibly help it.
"Of course you always want to win the race," said Gordon, who is on pole position for his final run in the Daytona 500 before his retirement from full time competition at the end of 2015. "Overall it was a really, really good test session for us to come away with a good result and a car in one piece so I can take the green flag with this race car from the pole on Sunday. That's awesome."
"Congrats to Dale Jr.," Gordon added. "He drove a great race, was aggressive and made some good moves. I thought we worked really well together. Our Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet is excellent. That's exactly what we ended to come out of this race with - other than the win - is a really good session like that where we're dicing it up, running three-wide and seeing what we're driving like even though it's a little cooler conditions than what we'll see Sunday."
"We have had a great car all week," contributed the Duel 1 winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. "We are going to have a fun day on Sunday. We had to do a lot of blocking there at the end, but those guys were mounting some pretty hard charges. We made a lot of good moves tonight because the car is so good."
As a result of his win on Thursday night, Earnhardt will now start the Daytona 500 from third place on the second row of the grid. Lining up immediately behind him in order are the next cars to cross the line in the first Duel - Penske's Joey Logano, Stewart-Haas Racing's Tony Stewart, and Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer.
The other side of the grid was set by the second Duel which took place immediately after the first under the floodlights at Daytona International Speedway, with Jimmie Johnson leading the field at the green flag - and at the chequered as well, as it turned out.
See full Daytona 500 starting grid
"Just really proud of the effort that HMS has put into our speedway cars, says a lot about how prepared we were coming down here," said Johnson. "I think all four of us Hendrick drivers knew it was really in our hands. The guys did their job at the shop and sent us down here with some really good hotrods.
"It was up to me in the end," he added. "Making sure I had a good restart, getting control of the layups was vital. I feel like I got a lot of good experience tonight, understanding the draft, how to protect. It's so difficult when you're leading trying to control those two lanes.
"A lot of experience gained tonight. Kind of dusted off my restrictor plate skills a little bit. Nice to be the winner of the second Duel," he summed up. "The 500 I think will be much more difficult to control than what we saw in these two races. When you have all the good cars there pushing and pulling, creating those runs, it will be a little more difficult."
Johnson led for 40 laps of his Duel in total. Kyle Busch led for the first 21 before losing the position with a pit lane speeding penalty during a caution for a spin by David Ragan. Although Busch still powered his way back to the front, he wasn't able to do anything about Johnson and the pair essentially broke away from the rest of the pack for the remainder of the night's event.
"I thought our race was pretty good," said Busch, who will now start in fourth place for the Daytona 500. "I wish we would have won obviously, just one short. We were a restart off. I didn't get the best of jumps there, Jimmie did – really bad on me. That just kind of set the tone for the final two laps."
Busch's new team mate at JGR, Carl Edwards, got a promising start with his new team by finishing just behind Busch in third place, meaning he will start Sunday's main event on row three in sixth place. Edwards' old teammate at Roush Fenway Racing Greg Biffle will be right behind him after finishing the second Duel in fourth, while Martin Truex Jr. also made it into the top ten on the Daytona grid by clinching fifth place in the heat.
Despite their relatively short scheduled length of 60 laps, both heat races still managed a number of cautions in just over an hour's running time apiece. In the first Duel, there were three cautions beginning with an engine blow-up for Casey Mears on lap 17, followed by a spin for Johnny Sauter on lap 28 that also took out AJ Allmendinger. On lap 51, former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne got loose and hit the wall, with Kyle Larson and Ty Dillon also involved.
A dramatic second Duel saw that early spin for David Ragan and then a multi-car wreck on lap 37 involving Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jeb Burton that led to a brief red flag for the clean-up. Dillon was the only one able to drive away from the incident while Bowman and Burton failed to qualify for Sunday's race as a result of being forced onto the sidelines. Hornish was more fortunate, and despite parking for the night will make the race thanks to RFR team owner points although he will have to start from 38th on the grid.
"It just looked like the #26 [Burton] got tight and had a bunch of wheel on it and clipped us in the left rear. I thought I had it saved the first time and then ended up getting hit by somebody else. There was a lot going on right there," said Hornish. "We were trying to keep the car clean and do what we could. We got a little bump there and thought we were going to be okay with it and then got hit a second time which turned the car into the wall. It is unfortunate."
The final caution came four laps from the scheduled end of the race when Danica Patrick, Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte and Brian Scott were involved in the second multi-car wreck of the night, which forced the Duel to end under green-white-chequered conditions after 64 laps instead of the planned 60.
The incident started when Patrick clashed with Denny Hamlin, the second time in two days that the pair had been involved in a collision this week following an earlier incident between them during Wednesday's practice session. In this case, an overtaking move down the inside by Hamlin sucked the #10 car around to trigger the wreck.
"I was just close to her and her car got loose and she spun," said Hamlin after an animated conversation with Patrick on pit road after the race. "I treat her as equal as anyone on the race track. She deserves her spot here, but you have to be able to run close to somebody on a superspeedway. You have to have your car stable enough to handle those situations."
"I'm confident other cars get very close, and things like that don't happen," said Patrick, refuting the suggestion that she hadn't done enough to control the car. "Done thousands of miles of this speedway racing now, and I haven't found that to be a problem. So I just think that he's wrong," she added.
"I think that he's too close," Patrick insisted. "I think that he's taking the air and getting it off the spoiler, and he's not squared up either. That's also part of the problem. I don't know. Maybe he likes my left rear."
Patrick was able to get going again and went on to cross the line in tenth place just ahead of Newman meaning that both comfortably made the Daytona 500. Labonte was also able to resume and finished in 20th place meaning that he needed the past champion's provisional to put on Sunday's grid in last place; however, Scott ended up failing to make the race after finishing in 17th. Also failing to race their way into the Daytona 500 this year are Justin Marks, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Justin Marks who suffered an early electrical problem in Duel 2.
On the more positive side of thing, Team XTREME Racing beat the odds to get a replacement car to the track for Reed Sorenson, who was involved in a big crash at the start of last weekend's controversial qualifying session. Sorenson then raced his way into the Daytona 500 by finishing in seventh place in the second Duel race despite the lack of time to get the car fully set-up.
"I'm real proud of these guys," said Sorenson afterwards. "Monday morning, we didn't know if it would be possible to pull it off. But we did. I'm extremely happy for all the guys back in Charlotte that worked on this car and all the work these guys had to do when they got here. They had a lot left and did an awesome job putting it together. It's a big deal for a team like this to make the Daytona 500. I'm proud of everyone, and now we can have fun. We have nothing to lose in the race and we're gonna give it all we've got."
And all three Front Row Motorsports cars were able to avoid elimination, including new addition Cole Whitt, despite David Ragan's early spin in Duel 2 from which he recovered to finish in 14th.
"I can't describe the emotions that went through that 60 lap race," he said. "Early on I didn't think that we were going to have an opportunity to get on the lead lap. The good Lord was looking after us tonight. I can't say enough about our team
"We just kept digging," he added. "You can never give up in this sport and in this race. Every lap means something. It felt like a win. This is a great feeling just to get to the Daytona 500 because I know we can work on our car and have a good strategy and run well in the 500. We could have a chance to win!"
See full Budweiser Duel heat race results
See full Daytona 500 starting grid
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