By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
For much of the second Can-Am Duel at Daytona, it looked like it would be Dale Earnhardt, Jr following the lead of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott to score the win after qualifying on the front row for the Daytona 500, but Denny Hamlin had other plans as he was able to execute a late race pass to take the lead and the win.
“It was great. Great car. Got a great push there for Austin (Dillon). We worked really well together that entire race. I’ll keep that in mind in the 500. It looked like our cars were really good together. I can’t thank this team enough for a great job by Wheels (Mike Wheeler, crew chief). FedEx announced their renewal today so that’s a great sign of a great year hopefully to come,” said Hamlin.
Earnhardt led 53 of the 60 laps in the race, but with Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet out front with two laps remaining, Hamlin got a big push from Austin Dillon down the backstretch and was able to power around the outside of Earnhardt and into the lead. Once Hamlin and Dillon got past, Earnhardt was helpless on the bottom line as he fell back in the field.
“I don’t know what I could have done differently to defend that,” said Earnhardt. “Once I heard the 3 (Dillon) was clear on the outside, I knew they were going to have a big run. Denny’s so smart, he knows what he’s doing and is one of the better plate racers out there. Any which way I would have went, he was going to go the other way and probably get by me. I was hoping Austin might push us a little bit since he’s drives a Chevy, but I don’t know if I’d have done it any different than he did either.”
Hamlin was able to stay out front for the remainder of the race, but drivers were still jockeying for position behind him. New teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer, were able to get around Dillon on the final lap, with Bowyer getting past Busch just before they crossed the finish line to finish second and third.
Along with the win and the fourth place start in the Daytona 500 that comes with it, Hamlin also signed a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing earlier on Thursday to keep himself and FedEx together in the No. 11 Toyota for the foreseeable future.
The remainder of the top-10 finishers were A.J. Allmendinger, Austin Dillon, Earnhardt, Danica Patrick, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, and Ty Dillon.
D.J. Kennington was able to race his way into the Daytona 500 with his 15th place finish by beating Elliott Sadler to the finish by a nose.
“Man, does that sound good. Castrol and Lordco, everybody that’s made this happen for me, Dwight Kennedy’s done a lot in my racing career. My dad, my whole family, my wife, my kids. It’s a huge moment for us. Marty Gaunt, Gaunt Brothers Racing, Toyota, everybody that has helped us get here today, I don’t even know how to explain it. I feel like I won the Daytona 500. The 7 (Elliott Sadler) car there, it was locked in on time. I thought he was going to be a little more cautious than that. But we had to race him right to the line and I wouldn’t want it any other way. That was awesome,” said Kennington.
Just like the first Duel race, there was one caution after David Ragan got into Jimmie Johnson down the backstretch on lap 42, causing him to sideswipe Ryan Blaney’s No. 21 car, which had showed some promise to challenge for the lead earlier in the event. Rookie Erik Jones also sustained some damage in the incident as the field stacked up in front of him and he ran into the back of another car.
The caution did not fly immediately but a few laps later, Johnson’s tire gave up and he went into the wall to bring out the yellow.
Johnson rebounded to finish 13th, while Jones finished 19th and Blaney finished 20th.