Hendrick Motorsports' Dale Earnhardt Jr. succeeded in pipping Penske's Joey Logano to the line in Thursday night's first Can-Am Duel at Daytona International Speedway, while Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch was successful in clinching the chequered flag from Chip Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray in the second race of the evening.
The two 60-lap Duels were essentially heat qualifying races determining the majority of the grid for Sunday's Daytona 500, the first round of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. The front row had already been decided by formal time trials last weekend in which Earnhardt's rookie team mate Chase Elliott captured his first pole and Busch's team mate Matt Kenseth had seemingly secured second place.
Earnhardt led for 43 laps in the first Duel but lost the lead during the race's mandated pit stop sequence to JGR's Denny Hamlin, leaving Earnhardt having to work hard to get back to the front.
"Denny is such a great plate racer," said Earnhardt. "There are a lot of guys that are really good at it these days. I knew he was going to be real tough to get around. When he got the lead I didn't know if we were going to be able to get around him. He has got a great car and he is real smart.
"For whatever reason I was able to get to his quarter-panel, he saw we had a pretty good run. I don't know, I didn't think I was going to clear him. We got away from him so he couldn't side draft us I guess. You will have to talk to him how it worked out for him."
Hamlin eventually dropped to fifth place by the end of the race. The victory was an emotional one for Earnhardt, whose father passed away on the same date 15 years before, following a fatal crash during the 2001 Daytona 500.
"It's real special. I was thinking about that," he said. "I try not to make too big a deal. I've told all you guys in interviews we've done how much I like people to remember Dad, talk about Dad. It really warms my heart to see the stuff on social media and so forth. That's probably my best way to gauge the reaction to a day like this. You see a lot of people mention him, even the Braves and all that stuff. It's pretty cool."
Logano was able to get by to finish just 0.183s behind Earnhardt, with Wood Brothers Racing's Ryan Blaney ensuring himself a place in Sunday's race by battling back from going a lap down with a loose wheel to finish third ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick. The confirmed pole sitter Chase Elliott - who had nothing left to prove on Thursday - still managed to finish in sixth just behind Hamlin.
Michael McDowell (Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing) made the grid after finishing in 14th place despite starting from the back after a practice crash earlier in the week had forced him to take to his back-up car for the race. Josh Wise (Motorsports Group) and Cole Whitt (Premium Motorsports) failed to make the 40-car grid for the Daytona 500.
Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch took the honours in the second Duel which was dominated from the start by Busch and his JGR team mates Kenseth and Carl Edwards. However, they were jumbled up by the mandatory pit stop sequence midway through proceedings. Busch quickly resumed the lead at the restart and led for the final 20 laps.
McMurray was battling with Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson for second place when Johnson spun out on the final lap, sparking a major crash involving Kenseth, AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty Racing) and Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing).
"Just aggressive racing at the end," Johnson explained. "I had a big run. Jamie was trying to get underneath the #18 and that didn't work out, and I creeped up to his outside. He moved up quickly to defend that. I could tell I was going to be taken up into the wall. I tried getting out of there but kind of got into the fence, skipped off the wall and spun out in front of everybody.
"It was a lot gone wrong I guess. It's not like anything was intentional. It's just a bummer to tear up a car after taking the white flag in a car that we tried so hard to protect and make so fast. There was just a lot gone wrong."
Kenseth will have to take to his back-up car for the Daytona 500, meaning that he will have to surrender his second place grid position and drop to the back for the start of the race.
"I guess it was quiet and calm there for a long time, and the last lap just went kind of crazy," said his team mate Busch. "Looking forward to starting the Daytona 500 in the fourth spot, but I think I will actually get the outside front row now that Kenseth got caught up in that mess and tore up his car."
Taking advantage of the last lap chaos, SHR's Kurt Busch picked up third place ahead of Edwards Followed by Ty Dillon. Ganassi's Kyle Larson was sixth despite starting from the back after being involved in the same practice crash as McDowell earlier in the week. Danica Patrick finished seventh despite being forced into the grassy area by the final lap accident.
"On the last lap I saw Jimmie starting to spin. I got on the brakes hard and started to slow down, then I got off the brake and started to just roll, and there was oil and it just spun. It was super unexpected. Hopefully, nothing is wrong with the car and we can just hammer on it a little bit, get it where it needs to be, change out the engine and get ready for the 500."
Matt DiBenedetto made the grid with ninth place, and he will be joined in Sunday's race by his BK Racing team mate Robert Richardson Jr. Failing to qualify for the Daytona 500 were Front Row Motorsports' David Gilliland and Hillman Racing's Reed Sorensen
See Can-Am Duel results
See Daytona 500 starting grid
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