Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images via NASCAR

Duels Come Down to Final Laps as Johnson, Grala Race into Daytona 500

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Throughout the majority of the first Duel race Thursday night at Daytona, it appeared everything was going the way of seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in his bid to make it into the field for the 66th running of the Daytona 500.

Barring something unfortunate, it seemed Johnson was on easy street, running near the front of the field in the early going and playing it safe near the back after a round of green flag pit stops, but with 11 laps to go, everything changed.

Ahead of Johnson’s No. 84 Legacy Motor Club Toyota, a trio of cars got together and Johnson found himself with nowhere to go, getting swept up in a crash in Turn 4 that also included Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Austin Dillon, and Daniel Hemric.

Luckily, Johnson was able to escape the incident relatively unscathed aside from losing all of his track position and now running behind J.J. Yeley – the driver he was battling for the transfer spot into the Daytona 500 field.

With six laps remaining in the 150-mile race, it was anyone’s guess which of the two would come out on top.

The two raced side-by-side, neck and neck over the final laps, with both taking the advantage at one point or another. On the final lap, Johnson found himself behind Yeley and in desperation mode.

Then came the break Johnson needed.

A stack up ahead of Johnson and Yeley caused Yeley to have to make an evasive move when Ross Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet started fading backwards, allowing Johnson to fall in behind Chastain with help from fellow Toyota teammate Martin Truex, Jr. That push was all Johnson needed with Yeley hung out to dry on the outside as held onto the transfer spot all the way to the finish to punch his ticket into Sunday’s race.

“This Carvana Toyota Camry was very, very capable in the draft,” Johnson said. “It was pretty easy to get up to the front and kind of maintain. And, while I was enjoying my position on track, I just knew it was too early, I knew stuff was coming and I knew something would happen. A few things happened after the pit stop that were quite exciting. Thankfully, we were in the right spot at the right time at the checkered flag.”

Johnson added that even with everything on the line, he appreciated the fight that Yeley and his small team were able to put up in the closing stages of the race.

“It was intense,” Johnson said. “With probably three to go he threw a great block on me on the front stretch and it kind of perked me up and I realized just what kind of battle I was in for in the closing laps. Hats off to them for the hard effort they put into this. This is not easy, and it stinks that a car has got to go home. They put up a heck of a fight and we’re fortunate to get in.”

Meanwhile, Yeley was left to wonder what if, as he was a half a lap from making it into the field for the Daytona 500, but will have to instead watch from home.

“Side by side coming to two-three to go, I thought we were in really good shape. Going into Turn 3, I wasn’t counting my chickens, but I was getting close,” Yeley said.

“Then I saw there was some contact ahead. Someone in the middle lost a lot of momentum and I made a split-second decision to go to the outside, try to carry the momentum, clear him. At least make the race track two wide where he couldn’t pass. He stayed in the middle. The 19 pushed him and the momentum just carried him all the way to the checkered flag.

“It sucks. Two years ago, we were close and just couldn’t get it.”

Grala Bests McLeod in Second Duel for Final Transfer Spot

Much like Johnson and Yeley, the second Duel race also came down to the final lap to decide who would be transferring on and who would be headed home.

It appeared to be McLeod’s race to lose, running inside the top-five while Grala was playing catch up, until a crash with 13 laps to go that turned the tables.

When Ryan Blaney was turned into the outside wall, setting off a multi-car crash that resulted in a red flag, McLeod found himself caught up in the melee, while Grala escaped without issue.

Now running in the transfer spot, Grala just needed to stay ahead of McLeod’s wounded car to be able to punch his ticket into the Daytona 500.

However, with three laps to go, Grala faded to the back of the field, setting up a duel with McLeod down the stretch to be able to earn a spot in the Great American Race.

One lap it was Grala, one lap it was McLeod, and in true Daytona fashion, the two were within striking distance of each other with the checkered flag in sight. Grala in the low lane, McLeod in the top lane, it would just be a matter of which line surged ahead by the time they reached the finish line.

In the end, it was Grala in the low lane that had the advantage when it mattered, crossing the line in 12th ahead of McLeod in 14th to clinch the final transfer spot into the Daytona 500.

“Man, I’m just coming down from it,” Grala said. “That was so much more stressful than it needed to be for us. For a little while we looked to be in good shape. Yeah, we had some trouble there. Pit road we weren’t able to stay with the draft.

“Just really proud of everybody at Front Row Motorsports. They worked so hard the last 24 hours to get the car ready to race today. Some trouble yesterday. Really cool to be able to get it in the show for them. Real big opportunity for me. Excited to be here on Sunday again.”

Despite falling short of making it into Sunday’s race, McLeod was encouraged by the performance his little team that could was able to deliver on Thursday night.

“Most people would be let down right now, but honestly I’m just happy because I’ve seen what this little team could do,” McLeod said. “Like, we’ve got nine full-time people now between Xfinity and Cup and they put this car together with no manufacturer support, no help of any kind.

“ECR power is the only real reason why we had any chance here. My guys did an awesome job building me an awesome car for the draft. We were a little bit off in qualifying, but the way it drove in the draft, it was worth it.

“I had a blast. Got up there and raced. Got to learn a lot and hopefully, showed some of the other drivers that we have good equipment and we’re here to race. So, whenever the 78 is around from here on out, we’re here with good equipment and we’re here to see what we can do.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.