The Duel qualifying races used to set the field for the Daytona 500 ran under the lights for the first time Thursday night. For 299.5 miles there was great racing but very little drama; that happened in the last few feet.
Matt Kenseth led 31 of 60 caution free laps to win the first Duel in a thrilling three wide finish. The second Duel, won by Denny Hamlin was just as sedate, that was until the final lap.
Daytona 500 pole sitter Matt Dillon held the lead at the start of the first Duel. It didn’t take long for the outside lane to settle down and pull ahead, while a group on the inside was trying to make up ground. Cole Whitt who had crashed in practice the day before and needed to race his way into the 500, was in seventh early in a back up car. By lap 7 the field was in a single line.
Greg Biffle who had been fighting for the lead at the start found himself at the back of the field by lap 8. By lap 13 Kenseth was leading a line of cars on the inside and were slowly making their way forward. On lap 14 Dale Earnhardt Jr. dove in front of Kenseth and suddenly the inside lane came alive and Earnhardt shot to the lead; Kenseth was second Kevin Harvick third. The outside line scrambled to try and make their way forward on lap 19; Earnhardt moved to the top taking Kenseth with him.
Harvick dropped to the inside on lap 20 and was soon contesting for the lead, Earnhardt continued to block and held on to the lead. A couple of laps later Harvick and Earnhardt battled side by side. Harvick dropped back by lap 24 and soon the inside line started to fall back. Dillon moved to the lead on the inside line on lap 25 with Harvick just behind.
Kenseth dropped to the inside and took the lead on lap 27. Biffle followed into second but was side by side with Earnhardt. By lap 30, halfway, the outside line was again the fastest with Kenseth in the lead and Earnhardt second. Just prior to pit stops on lap 36 the field tightened up with Kenseth moving up and down to protect his lead. Pit stops began a lap later led by Kenseth. Earnhardt stayed out another lap and lead a second group in on the next lap.
After the field shook out, Kenseth was still leading, Harvick was second, Kasey Kahne was third with Marcos Ambrose fourth. Earnhardt was ninth. The field strung out into single file and stayed there as the laps wound down. With five to go the battles started outside the top 10 as those who needed to race into the 500 began to shuffle. Up front the lead group began to rumble.
A second line from fifth on back tried to make their way forward. The top six though broke away and began to separate themselves from the field. On the final turn of the final lap Harvick dove to the inside; Kahne dropped down to make it three wide coming to the line, Kenseth however was able to hold the two off to win.
“Kevin (Harvick) is one of the best,” Kenseth said. “Kevin, Tony (Stewart), there’s a few of those guys that you want to see behind you because you trust them to do the right things, but you also don’t because they’re so smart and I saw him laying back getting a run and he made the perfect move. I was just fortunate to get to his right rear early enough to get a big enough run to get me back to the finish line.”
Harvick was second, Kahne third, Ambrose was fourth with Earnhardt fifth. Jose Wise was sixth. He Alex Bowman and Cole Whitt were able to race into the 500 field.
Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger, David Gilliland and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 10. in post race inspection, NASCAR threw out Harvick’s time moving Kahne up to second and forcing Harvick to make the field on his qualifying speed or owners points.
Martin Truex Jr. led the field to the green for the second Duel, but it was Brad Keselowski who quickly took over the lead. Much like the first Duel the top line fell in single file. Keselowski led, Carl Edwards was second, Jeff Gordon third with Brian Scott fourth. By lap 11 the entire field was single file.
At the halfway point the field was split in two with the top 11 cars lead by Keselowski, Edwards, Gordon, Scott and Kurt Busch. A half second back a second group led by David Ragan held station.
Pit stops started on lap 36 as the entire field with the exception of Denny Hamlin and Casey Mears came in. NASCAR said leader Keselowski was speeding during the stop and he was forced to serve a pass through penalty. Hamlin came in on lap 39 and served his penalty. When the stops and penalty shook out, Hamlin was in the lead with Busch second, Gordon third; Johnson and Edwards battled for fifth; meanwhile on the backstretch Keselowski saw his night go from bad to worse as he slowed with a flat tire.
The leaders held station as the laps wound down, with Hamlin leading four Hendrick powered Chevy’s. With three laps to go, the leaders held fast as behind them outside the top ten battled for position. With two laps to go, Mears slowed out of gas.
On the final corner of the final lap Jamie McMurray and Johnson got together in turn four after Johnson’s Chevy ran out of fuel, setting off a huge crash that involved seven cars including Johnson, Clint Bowyer who was sent for a barrel roll and Truex Jr., whose car was destroyed in a ball of fire forcing him to a back up car and to the rear of the field from the front row for the Daytona 500.
"I think the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) ran out of gas,” Bowyer said. “I knew he was saving gas coming to the green. It’s too bad to tear cars up like that. That was one of the wildest flips I’ve ever had. I think we would have been just fine if I hadn’t hit the grass right here. Dammit!”
Hamlin, who went to victory in last Saturday nights Sprint Unlimited, won under caution, Gordon was second, Busch third, Paul Menard fourth and Brian Scott fifth.
“It was fairly uneventful,” Hamlin said of his race. “Really the pit stop sequence was what got us upfront and obviously our car was strong enough to hold it. What I was most worried about is obviously when you have such a strong car like you have on Saturday night that we had in the Unlimited you get a little bit spoiled and you worry about what you’re going to have for the 500. But obviously this right here shows that we’ve got some great speed and a car capable of winning the Daytona 500.”
Among those drivers who needed to race their way into the 500 that made the field were Michael Waltrip, Cole Whitt, Parker Kligerman, Brian Scott, and Landon Cassill. Terry and Bobby Labonte will also be in the field.