Column By: JOHN DOUGLAS / RPW – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano found victory lane in Thursday night’s Gander RV Duels at Daytona International Speedway solidifying a second row starting spot in Sunday’s 61st running of the Daytona 500. For Harvick, Logano and most of the field it was a race for starting position. For a select few, it was to be in position to start the race at all.
Duel No. 1 got underway with William Byron, then Daytona 500 pole sitter and Jimmie Johnson taking the green flag on the front row of the 21 car field. Byron moved up in front of his Hendrick teammate and led the field on lap one. Quickly, the entire field found itself running the top line around the speedway, running super fast laps as they clicked off some laps before their inevitable pit stop was made.
The first of the pack to drop to pit lane was Martin Truex Jr.. The 2017 series champion found himself alone on pit road and took fuel only.
Over the next two laps wholesale pit stops began with Paul Menard, Harvick, Kyle Busch and more also taking fuel only, however Multiple cars including Ryan Preece, Daniel Hemric and Brad Keselowski were force back to pit road for various infractions. The worst of which went to Keselowski ans he pitted outside his stall drawing a one lap penalty from officials.
Keselowski’s dramas weren’t over as he was deemed to leave pit road to soon while serving his penalty and the river of the Penske Racing Ford found himself serving the penalty again.
Just a few circuits later the field found itself under the yellow flag for Kyle Busch’s No. 18. As the field maneuvered around slower traffic, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch made it three-wide and space ran out for the seven-time champion as Johnson contacted the No. 18 sending him spinning into the run off area on the backstretch. Wit a right front tire down, Kyle Busch nursed his car to pit road to get four new tires.
Harvick assumed the lead after pit stops and never relinquished control after the race’s only restart. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard, Matt Di Benedetto and Martin Truex Jr. completed the top five.
“The strategy tonight worked out well. We got onto pit road really well, they put gas in the car really well and they were able to get us the lead. Our cars have been fast. We just didn’t get the track position last Sunday.” Harvick said.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a race like we’ve seen the last two races. It’s just so much different when you get all the cars out there.”
The race within the race was for the one coveted starting spot for teams who did not qualify through single car time trials. Parker Kligerman earned that spot for Sunday’s race by finishing 12th.
“First of all I have to thank Kyle Busch and for us linking that Toyota TRD power together because without him there’s no way I get by (Tyler) Reddick. (Ryan) Truex was doing all the right things like laying back because he knew if the 31 (Reddick) is in front of me he’s in the 500.” Kligerman said.
“Here’s the crazy thing. A year ago I watched this race and I felt like I’d probably never get the chance to be in this race again. Fast forward to a couple weeks ago I’m in this media center doing pit reporting during the Daytona 24 hours and now I’m sitting up here talking to you guys as a guy who just made the Daytona 500. This is a pretty cool deal.”
The second of the Duels rolled off with Hendrick teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott on the front row. Quickly, Bowman moved up to the top line in front of his Hendrick teammate and the field got into an orderly line around the top side of the speedway.
Brendan Gaughan and Joey Gase immediately found themselves in, as one person called it, a match race for the one spot available in the Daytona 500 for the ‘open’ cars. Side drafting and almost touching on more than one occasion, the duo battled hard for a handful of laps before Gase was finally forced to let the No. 62 of Gaughan prevail.
As in the first race the field began to hit pit road early on. Bowman, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson among others headed to pit road for their fuel stop. Unfortunately, as in the first duel. Pit lane infractions would come into play as Jones’ No. 20 was caught speeding exiting the pit lane.
As stops cycled through, Gaughan, Casey Mears, his other competitor for the final spot in the Daytona 500 and Corey LaJoie found themselves at the front of the field. The trio’s strategy to stay out and lead a longer portion of the race was a risky move. However for one driver, it was a risk that paid off.
Clint Bowyer assumed the lead of the main pack of cars after most pit stops had cycled through and was the effective leader as the field waited for the top three to finally duck down to pit road.
While waiting, we saw our first glimpse of the leaders using the bottom lane to circulate the speedway. Bowyer led the train around trying to keep the second pack of cars behind what was effectively the lead group of cars.
As the top three pitted, Bowyer assumed the lead and looked to have the race in control. All the while Chase Elliott was becoming one of the stars of the race as he made pass after pass by himself. Using the draft and good timing, Elliot was able to gain at least three positions on track with no help from another car. One of the only instances of that happening all Speedweek long to date.
Bowyer continued to lead as the field took the white flag. Worried about the final lap move others were assuredly going to make, Bowyer confessed that his main focus was Denny Hamlin. However the attack came from the fourth place car of Joey Logano, as he made a last ditch effort on the backstretch that shot him all the way to lead and the win in Duel No. 2.
“You think okay okay what’s the risk when you’re waiting like that. Logano said of his move on the final lap to win. “The earlier you do it the risk becomes greater. I was able to wait long enough. You see a couple of them getting anxious like ‘when’s it going to be?’ and I knew I wanted to do it into (turn) one. So I went for it and I crossed my fingers and hoped it was good enough to break that plane where the 14 could pull me back and side draft on my rear-quarter.”
In the final starting spot for the Daytona 500 will be Brendan Gaughan. His strategy move to stay out later and work with Mears and LaJoie worked out. The Las Vegas native is only running restrictor plate races this season and is in much the same position as Kligerman. Not sure how but happy he’s in another Great American Race.
” I haven’t been this nervous since I was a rookie in the Winston West Series. Gaughan said. “The butterflies I felt coming up to this race… I mean on the last lap I tried to relax but I never want to come down here again and not lock myself in in qualifying. I make a vow that if I come back here with the Beard Motorsports team ever we will make sure we are the fastest in qualifying no matter what because this absolutely sucks and I’m too old to feel these butterflies.”
Sunday’s Daytona 500 field is now set. For some, like Casey Mears and Ross Chastain, it will be a full year before their Daytona 500 dreams can come true. For others, like Harvick, Bowyer and Logano, it’s the opportunity to win the biggest race of their lives.