Duels turn into game of numbers at Daytona



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—If Thursday night's Duels proved anything, there will be strength in numbers for the Daytona 500.

General Motors created the motto, “Teamwork wins,” but Ford incorporated that strategy to perfection in the first Duel with Aric Almirola locking onto Logano’s bumper for the win at Daytona International Speedway.

In Duel 2,  Kevin Harvick led 34 laps but could not stop a three-car charge of Chevrolets led by William Byron over the final three laps.

“This is awesome,” Logano said. “What great teamwork by the Fords, especially Aric Almirola, my goodness. He was a great pusher at the right time and we were able to hold off the bottom when we needed and hold off the Chevy’s and showed the speed that the Ford’s have here.

“That is something I am proud to be a part of. I am proud to be driving that Blue Oval and these Roush Yates motors. We are ready to rock and roll. I can’t wait for the 500.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Alex Bowman, who solidified the front row for the Daytona 500 last Sunday in time trials, will be followed by Logano and Byron. Reed Sorenson and Timmy Hill raced their ways into the Great American Race.

Stenhouse led the first 22 laps in the first Duel. The action was pretty tame early with the exception of Martin Truex Jr.’s faux pas on pit road. Truex received damage early following a pit road incident of his making. As he followed Denny Hamlin down pit road on Lap 23, he missed his pit box, slowed and was hit from behind by Bell.

The race was slowed by one caution on Lap 30. As the Fords came to pit, Keselowski and Ryan Blaney slowed in Turn 4 but Daniel Suarez was unaware of their plan. Suarez slid into the No. 12 Ford ending his night and the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers team’s night and chances to transfer to the Great American Race.

“There was no communication,” Suarez said. “The 2 (Keselowski) car all of a sudden started to slow down and obviously it was either wreck him or go to the right and I thought the 12 (Blaney) was going to give me a little more room, but obviously he didn’t.”

Although Blaney finished the race 14th, the No. 12 team elected to go to a backup car for Sunday.

“I guess if you wound it, try not to kill it,” Blaney said. “We got lucky. We should have never been in that spot in the first place. It was just an error on my part and kind of a little lack of communication that didn’t end well.”

Logano took the lead on lap 38 when the race returned to green. He traded the point with Stenhouse. Denny Hamlin pushed Stenhouse to the lead out of Turn 4 with two to go, a line of Mustangs led by Logano then Almirola, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski swept the top four.

Bubba Wallace finished fifth followed by Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr., Stenhouse, Christopher Bell and Chris Buescher.

Sorenson, who finished 18th to transfer, wiped back sweat and tears as he described the satisfaction of qualifying for NASCAR’s biggest race of the year.

“You never know when you're going to not get another chance to run the Daytona 500, and it's such a big race,” Sorenson said. “You know, I didn't know for sure if I was going to be driving or spotting. I don't know if a lot of people know, but a lot of times when I'm not driving, I'm spotting.  So I wanted to drive, of course. I enjoy spotting, but not as much as driving.

“You know, just not knowing when the next time ‑‑ this might be your last Daytona 500, and there's no guarantees on when you're going to get that next opportunity.  Just to get the opportunity was very exciting for me, and then now that we're in, I can enjoy the moment and the weekend.”

Bowman led the second field to green. Harvick claimed the point on Lap 5 and the two drivers exchanged the lead three times by Lap 16. On Lap 20, the front pack of 14-cars ran single-file around the track led by the No. 88 Chevrolet. On the same circuit, Brennan Poole pitted with a flat tire on the No. 15 Chevy.

The Bow-tie brigade pitted on Lap 23 and Jones assumed the lead. Kyle Busch nestled up to second two laps later. Busch assumed the lead after Jimmie Johnson blocked the No. 20 and Jones fell to fifth.

Ten laps later, the Toyotas and Fords came in for service and Harvick cycled back out to the lead.

Caution 1 was ignited on Lap 43 when Hill slammed into the rear of the No. 32 of Corey LaJoie and collected J.J. Yeley in the process. The leaders pitted under yellow. Harvick maintained the point out of the pits followed by Kyle Busch, DiBenedetto, Ragan, Jones, Larson, Byron, Ty Dillon, Kurt Busch and Cole Custer.

The green flag waved again on Lap 47 with 13 circuits remaining. Once again, the Fords took control with Busch, fourth, getting an assist from Ragan on the outside. With 10 to go, the lanes blended and Harvick led the conga line. Busch wasn’t satisfied running seventh, jumped out of line and dropped to 11th three laps later.

With three to go, the No. 24 of Byron pulled to the outside with an assist by Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson to take the lead. Johnson dropped in front of Harvick for third, then moved to second on the white-flag lap and pushed Byron to his first Cup win.

“There wasn't any Chevy orders or anything like that,” Byron said. “We just did a good job of working together. Kurt was a great pusher and great helper. I really had a lot of trust in him.           

“I was really trying to go with one to go, but I had enough momentum out of the tri‑oval.  Watching the old races, that's where the momentum kind of lines up.  I didn't know if I would get that kind of same momentum once everybody started pushing with one to go.

Made it there, got to second. I guess Kevin played really nice and didn't pull a big block.  Thanks to Axalta. This car looks really good.  I'm sure it was beautiful under the lights.  Excited for the 500.”

Larson, Harvick, Custer, Jones, DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch, Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick completed the top 10.

Despite DiBenedetto hugging the No. 4 Ford’s bumper, he was shuffled back to fifth leaving Harvick to fend for himself over the final two laps.

“That was just a weird scenario with the 24 (Byron) in the middle of our six cars that we had on the bottom,” Harvick said. “He was able to pull out of line and then it kind of slowed our line down enough to where they were able to carry that momentum from the outside line.

“Those guys did everything they needed to do right there. I probably could have been a little more aggressive on the block but we have seen what that results in.”

For Hill, who maxed out his credit cards to get to Daytona, qualifying for his first Daytona 500 made it worth the gamble.

"I'm really proud of the car our team prepared for this race," Hill said. "They brought me a beautiful racecar. They invested a lot of money to rent a Roush‑Yates motor. Had great power all night long. Felt like we could hang with the lead pack.

"For us, people don't really give us much of a shot. To come into this race as an underdog, nobody's really counting on, it feels really great to prove a lot of people wrong. This team, they jumped off the wall and celebrated. I could hear their voices on the radio.

"For me personally, this is my 10th year in NASCAR. It's my very first time making this race. I attempted it one other time.  That ended in disappointment. To make this race, it's really special for us."

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