Story By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Ryan Blaney held off Team Penske teammate Joey Logano to win Thursday night’s first 150-mile qualifying race in the Can-Am Duel at Daytona International Speedway, but the story of the race was the list of prominent cars that did not survive until the checkered flag.
In the second Duel, Chase Elliott grabbed the lead on Lap 27 of 60 and held it the rest of the way, beating Kevin Harvick to the finish line by .081 seconds. Erik Jones survived an early spin to run third, followed by Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch.
Blaney finished the first Duel .207 seconds ahead of fast-closing Logano in the race that set the order of the inside row for Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX), the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season opener. Blaney will start third behind pole winner Alex Bowman, who rode conservatively in the back in the first Duel and finished 14th.
Logano, who charged past Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. at the stripe for the runner-up spot, will start fifth in the 500, a race he won in 2015.
“It’s nice to get the year started off well,” said Blaney, who got a strong push from Wallace during the decisive two-lap shootout after a Lap 59 wreck sent the race to overtime. “It’s not the (Daytona) 500. You never know what can happen on Sunday. We came close in (last Sunday’s) Clash, and I didn’t make a good move and I kind of lost that race.
“I learned a little bit, and I thought about that forever. I thought we learned a little bit from our mistakes. It’s so nice to bring the 12 car back to victory lane. Hopefully, we can make it another one here on Sunday. That would be the one that counts.”
Jimmie Johnson, however, one of the first casualties of a 60-lap event that produced four cautions. On Lap 9, Johnson cut his right rear tire and spun entering Turn 1, rocketing up the track and slamming into the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Aric Almirola.
Both cars were destroyed in the wreck, in which the No. 19 Toyota of Daniel Suarez also suffered damage—but not enough to eliminate him from the race. Johnson and Almirola will start from the rear of the field in backup cars in the Great American Race.
“The car started to shake a little bit entering the tri-oval,” Johnson said of the accident. “That’s why I pulled down. I was kind of shocked that I had the shake, and knew it was that soft tire shake coming from the right side.
“As I entered the tri-oval, it finally went flat and hooked me around and into to Aric, unfortunately. Terrible way to start…”
Almirola was a hapless victim of Johnson’s misfortune.
“There was nothing I could do,” said Almirola, who was competing for the first time in his new ride with SHR. “I saw him pull out of line. I thought he was just checking up, but he came back across the track. It’s disappointing.
“Not the way I wanted to start Speedweeks with our Smithfield Ford Fusion, but we will get another car out and get ready for the rest of the weekend. The beauty of it is that it is just the 150s, and it wasn’t the Daytona 500.”
Advance Auto Parts Clash winner Brad Keselowski also will head to the rear in a backup, after his No. 2 Team Penske Ford pinched the No. 1 Chevrolet of Jamie McMurray into the outside backstretch wall on Lap 58, when McMurray tried to fill a narrow gap to the outside.
Rookie William Byron was another casualty of the first Duel. On Lap 39, a side-draft from Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Ford sucked Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet around. Byron’s car nosed into the outside wall and subsequently dropped out of the race.
Denny Hamlin, who started on the pole for the second Duel, faded to ninth as the field shuffled over the final three laps, but Hamlin will start beside Bowman on the front row for the Daytona 500, having secured that spot in last Sunday’s time trials.
Elliott, who collected a Duel victory for the second straight year, will start fourth in the Great American Race, with Harvick behind him in sixth.
“To be honest, I was trying a lot of stuff,” said Elliott, who handed team owner Rick Hendrick his 15th Duel win. “I didn’t really know what to do. This new (rules) package is a little different, and the way these cars draft is a little strange compared to what we’ve seen in the past.
“I don’t really know if anybody has it figured out. We’re all trying to learn and see what the best position is to be in—and when you want to be there.”
The most notable victim of the second Duel was Kyle Larson, whose No. 42 Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was eliminated on Lap 12 in a four-car wreck that also involved Matt DiBenedetto, Jones and Elliott, who tapped and turned Jones’ Toyota to start the incident.
“I just hate that we tore up another car, and my guys are going to have to get another Credit One Bank Chevy prepared before (Friday) morning practice,” Larson said. “We just didn’t really want to crash today. That stinks.
“I haven’t seen a replay or anything, but it kind of looked like the No. 9 (Elliott) got into the No. 20 (Jones) in the middle of the corner. Seemed like we were all good, then they started spinning on exit and I had nowhere to go.”