By AMANDA VINCENT
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch were Can-Am Duel winners at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway on Thursday night, each taking wins in 60-lap/150-mile races that determine the starting grid for Sunday’s Daytona 500, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series “official” season-opener. With their wins, they claimed second-row spots on the Daytona 500 starting grid behind pole sitter Chase Elliott and Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth, although he will be credited with a second-place starting spot for the 500-mile race, will actually take the green flag from the back on Sunday, as he’ll be in a back-up car after being involved in a last-lap crash in the second Duel.
“Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) was saying, once we got shuffled, he was telling me to bail out down the frontstretch, and I was actually trying to find a hole to get out of there,” Kenseth said. “I saw the wreck happen awhile before it started and tried to start slowing down and just, car got ran over from behind and got pushed under the wreck, so that’s beyond disappointed.”
Also involved in the crash were A.J. Allmendinger, Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr.
“Just the wrong place at the wrong time,” Truex said. “Pretty much like what happened Saturday night to us (in the Sprint Unlimited). Just riding along there, you know? Take the white in pretty decent spot and just, they start wrecking in front of me, so there’s not much you can do. But disappointed, obviously. I thought our car was really good tonight.”
Earnhardt dominated the first Duel, leading 43 of the 60 laps, while Denny Hamlin led 13. Earnhardt started on the front row next to Daytona 500 pole sitter and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, but took the lead on lap three. He led until the field cycled through green-flag stops around lap 40, but lost the lead to Hamlin on pit road. Earnhardt was back up front, though, by four laps to go.
“This car is awesome,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t really get too confident. I don’t want to get overly confident in what I’m doing, but the car really does everything I ask it to do.”
The only caution of the race came on lap 42 for a single-car spin by Cole Whitt. Before his spin, Whitt was running in position to claim a starting spot for the Daytona 500. Instead, his spot went to Michael McDowell.
Ryan Blaney actually was the highest finisher among drivers from “open” teams in the first Duel, as he finished third behind Earnhardt and Joey Logano, but he was already guaranteed a spot by virtue of his lap time during front-row qualifying on Feb. 14. With Blaney racing his way into the 500, McDowell was able to take one of the back Daytona 500 starting spots with his front-row qualifying lap of record.
Joe Gibbs Racing dominated Duel two, with JGR teammates Busch, Kenseth and Carl Edwards running in the top-three until green-flag stops on laps 38 and 39. Kenseth started on the pole and led the first 23 laps before Busch took over on lap 24.
“Great car,” Kyle Busch said. “These guys at Joe Gibbs Racing do a phenomenal job this winter building some new pices for us to come down here with and have some fun. Looking forward to starting the Daytona 500 in the fourth spot, but I think I will actually get the outside front row now that Kenseth got caught up in that mess and tore up his car.”
Cars ran single-file through most of the second Duel before things got dicey in the closing laps, ultimately leading to the only yellow flag of the race on the final lap.
Jamie McMurray finished second to Busch, with Kurt Busch finishing third, Edwards fourth, and Ty Dillon rounded out the top-five.
In the second Duel, Matt DiBenedetto raced his way into the Daytona 500. He was already locked in from his front-row qualifying lap time, but after racing his way in through the Duel, Robert Richardson Jr. got a starting spot based on his qualifying lap.
“Man, that’s better than winning the lottery right there,” Richardson said. “Not the way we really wanted to go about doing it, but we were hanging back there, just trying to hand on to the draft. All in all, making it into the 500 is a mileston for my career, definitely.”
Follow Auto Racing Daily on Twitter @AutoRacingDaily or like Auto Racing Daily on Facebook (facebook.com/autorcngdaily). Amanda’s also on Twitter @NASCARexaminer and has a fan/like page on Facebook: NASCAR Examiner
Here’s the Daytona 500 starting grid: