Aric Almirola finished 0.41 seconds ahead of Christopher Bell on Thursday night in the first of two Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona qualifying races for the Daytona 500 to win the 60-lap/150-mile race. With the win came the third position on the starting grid of Sunday’s Daytona 500.
The opening Duel race sets the odd-numbered positions, or inside line, of the Daytona 500 starting grid behind Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron who claimed front-row Daytona 500 starting positions, with Bowman on the pole, during a single-car, single-lap front-row qualifying session Wednesday night.
Bell finished second in the first Duel after he and Joey Logano challenged Almirola late in the race. Logano, though, fell back to fourth by the checkered flag. Ryan Newman finished third. Ryan Preece finished fifth, 0.04 seconds ahead of Ty Dillon.
Preece and Dillon were two of four drivers in the opening Duel race without charters that guarantee starting positions. Preece guaranteed a starting positions somewhere in the Daytona 500 race field by being the fastest of eight, overall, non-chartered teams/drivers in front-row qualifying the previous night. Preece, though, raced his way into the Daytona 500 by being the highest finisher among the open, or non-chartered, drivers, enabling Austin Cindric take a Daytona 500 starting spot based on his speed in Wednesday’s single-car, single-lap qualifying session.
Cindric finished Thursday night’s race in 16th, one lap down, as a result of a speeding penalty during a cycle of green-flag pit stops just past the halfway point of the race.
“First of all, I get the bonehead of the race award, speeding in the last section of pit road when I nailed everything else the whole night that I didn’t know how to do, so my guys can all have a shot punching me wherever they want to, but I’m obviously really happy to get our Verzon 5G Ford Mustang into the big show,” Cindric said. “There’s a lot left for me to learn, but racing on the biggest stage against the best drivers is an amazing opportunity.”
After a sixth-place in the opening Duel, Dillon will find himself on the outside looking in during Sunday’s Daytona 500, along with Timmy Hill, who finished 19th in the first Duel race.
Almirola dominated the first Duel, leading 52 laps. The only other lap leaders were Bell, Daniel Suarez, Denny Hamlin and Tyler Reddick, but none of them led more than three laps.
“This thing was a hot rod,” Almirola said. “I’m so proud of these guys on this race team. Our race car is so fast. I’m proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. We’ve got an incredible race car, and I can’t wait for the Daytona 500. Thanks to Smithfield and everybody that supports this program. Our Ford Mustang is fast and it’s a great way to kickoff the season.”
Hamlin, the two-time defending Daytona 500 winner, fell to the back early in the race and remained there for most of the 60-lap distance. He made a run toward the front in the closing laps but fell back to 13th by the checkered flag.
The top-10 finishers of each Duel are awarded points. Other top-10 finishers in the first Duel included Kyle Larson in seventh, Suarez in eighth, Michael McDowell in ninth, and Jamie McMurray in 10th.
Daytona 500 pole sitter Bowman finished 20th, four laps down, after suspecting an engine issue. When he pitted, his team ran a diagnostic test on the car but was unable to find a problem.
The second Duel was scheduled to get underway upon the completion of the first race, but the start of that race has been delayed by rain.