DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Hendrick Motorsports swept the front-row starting positions for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Apparently enjoying the feeling, HMS then swept Thursday’s Budweiser Duel at Daytona twin 150-mile qualifying races.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from his last-place starting position to win Thursday night’s first Budweiser Duel at Daytona 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway, as unsung heroes behind him diced their way into the 57th running of the Great American Race (1 p.m. ET on FOX).
Jimmie Johnson, on the pole for the second Duel and already locked into the outside of the front row for the Daytona 500, completed the Hendrick sweep with a .125-second victory over Kyle Busch, leading 40 laps in the process.
In a drama-filled second Duel, both Danica Patrick and David Ragan recovered from wrecks to race their way into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ most prestigious race, Patrick with a strong push from Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch.
For the second time during Speedweeks, Patrick was involved in a crash with Denny Hamlin, and the two drivers had an extended animated conversation as soon as the cars parked on pit road.
Earnhardt started 25th in the first Duel because his qualifying time was disallowed after inspectors discovered a ride-height violation on his No. 88 Chevrolet after Sunday’s time trials. Undeterred, Earnhardt worked his way methodically to the front, grabbing the lead for the first time on Lap 35.
All told, Earnhardt led 21 laps and crossed the finish line .165 seconds ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate and Daytona 500 polesitter Jeff Gordon. As the winner of the first Duel, Earnhardt will line up behind Gordon in the third spot on the grid for Sunday’s race.
In the non-points qualifier, Earnhardt won for the first time with new crew chief Greg Ives, who took over this season for Steve Letarte, hired by NBC Sports as a television analyst.
“We have had a great car all week,” Earnhardt said. “I’m so glad to be able to get through the Duel in one piece, because I know how good this race car is. We have a couple more practices to go through and try to stay out of trouble during those and put this thing on the grid. We’re going to have a fun day on Sunday.
“We had to do a lot of blocking there at the end, but those guys were mounting some pretty hard charges. We made a lot of good moves tonight because the car is so good. TJ Majors (spotter) deserves a ton of credit for helping us win that race tonight. He called a great spotting job up on top of the hill there. He gave me all the information I needed to make the moves I needed to kind of keep them guys behind me.”
Joey Logano came home third, followed by Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, whose fifth-place finish in a backup car represented a stroke of good fortune during an otherwise star-crossed week at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
The real drama in the first Duel, however, took place behind the frontrunners, as Landon Cassill (ninth), Cole Whitt (10th), Michael McDowell (12th), JJ Yeley (13th), Michael Annett (14th) and Ty Dillon (16th) all earned starting spots in the 500.
McDowell made the most dramatic move, forcing his way up the middle and racing from the tail end of the field to 12th place on the final lap.
“When I crossed that white flag (to start the last lap) I was thinking, ‘I have to do this. I don’t know what we’re gonna do, I don’t know how we’re gonna do it, but we’ve just got to do it,’” McDowell said. “You can’t make these cars go faster. I had a run that was building and there wasn’t a gap and I made a gap.
“I tore up both sides of the race car in the process of doing it and had to block some people, and probably upset a few people along the way, but this race is so important for us to make…”
Notes: Ty Dillon qualified for his first Daytona 500, as will Ryan Blaney, who will pilot the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. … Six drivers failed to qualify: Ron Hornaday Jr., Josh Wise, Jeb Burton, Justin Marks, Alex Bowman and Brian Scott.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race – Budweiser Duel #1
- (25) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 60, $56726.
- (1) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 60, $41713.
- (10) Joey Logano, Ford, 60, $36713.
- (15) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 60, $31713.
- (20) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 60, $29713.
- (14) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 60, $27313.
- (3) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 60, $26213.
- (5) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 60, $25213.
- (23) Landon Cassill, Chevrolet, 60, $25188.
- (22) Cole Whitt, Ford, 60, $25163.
- (12) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 60, $25138.
- (19) Michael McDowell, Ford, 60, $25113.
- (11) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, 60, $25088.
- (17) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 60, $25063.
- (18) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 60, $25038.
- (4) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 60, $25013.
- (2) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 60, $24988.
- (21) Justin Marks(i), Toyota, 60, $24938.
- (9) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 60, $24913.
- (8) Aric Almirola, Ford, 60, $24888.
- (24) Ron Hornaday Jr., Chevrolet, 60, $24838.
- (7) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 60, $24813.
- (13) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, Accident, 27, $24763.
- (6) Johnny Sauter(i), Toyota, Accident, 27, $24738.
- (16) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, Engine, 17, $0.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race – Budweiser Duel #2
- (1) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 64, $56726.
- (2) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 64, $41713.
- (3) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 64, $36713.
- (6) Greg Biffle, Ford, 64, $31713.
- (5) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 64, $29713.
- (9) Ryan Blaney(i), Ford, 64, $27313.
- (20) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 64, $26213.
- (23) Mike Wallace, Toyota, 64, $25213.
- (17) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 64, $25188.
- (15) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 64, $25163.
- (13) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 64, $25138.
- (14) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 64, $25113.
- (18) David Gilliland, Ford, 64, $25088.
- (21) David Ragan, Ford, 64, $25063.
- (4) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 64, $25038.
- (8) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 64, $25013.
- (16) Brian Scott(i), Chevrolet, 64, $24988.
- (24) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 64, $24938.
- (10) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 64, $24913.
- (11) Bobby Labonte, Ford, Accident, 60, $24888.
- (7) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, Accident, 36, $24838.
- (19) Jeb Burton #, Toyota, Accident, 36, $24813.
- (12) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, Accident, 36, $24763.
- (22) Josh Wise, Ford, Electrical, 1, $24738.
Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service
Image: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images