NASCAR: Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon win Duels at Daytona

Geoff Magliocchetti

A long, wild evening in NASCAR’s preparation for Daytona culminated in big victories for Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon.

Floridian rains created an extended halftime break at the Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night, pushing the proceedings into Friday morning. But the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series made sure there was an incredible show in store for those that stuck around.

Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon were the winners of the annual qualifying races held prior to the Daytona 500, allowing them prime starting position in Sunday’s main event. Almirola won a relatively calm first duel, leading 52 of 60 laps in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford before rains pushed back the start of part two by a couple of hours. When the latter portion was finally allowed to proceed, Dillon and the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet capped off a chaotic endeavor by holding off Bubba Wallace for the win in an overtime finish.

“It just gives us a lot of confidence. We know we have a fast car,” Almirola said of his victorious No. 10. “It drives really well. It handles well. It pushes. It gets pushed well. All of the things that are important to be successful at Daytona. Gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence going into the race on Sunday.”

The starting front row for the Daytona 500 is annually determined by speeds on single-car qualifying laps while the 60-lap/150-mile Duels order the rest of the field. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron respectively took home the top two positions on Wednesday night, while Almirola and Dillon would start immediately behind them by virtue of their Duel victories. However, with Bowman experiencing possible mechanical issues and Byron getting caught up in a late wreck in their individual races, they could be forced to use backup cars, which would send them to the rear of the field. Should Bowman and Byron opt to do so, Almirola and Dillon would lead the field to the green on Sunday afternoon to officially open the 2021 Cup Series season (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

With their victories, Almirola and Dillon each assume the title of Cup Series points leader. Drivers who finished in the top ten of each Duel are awarded points toward the official standings, with the winners getting ten each. The runner-ups received nine, and each descending position receives one fewer tally, provided the driver is competing for Cup Series points on a full-time basis.

Duel One

Almirola’s victory was part of a mostly placid affair, though there was late dramatics before he crossed the start/finish line for the final time. After taking the lead on lap 13 from Christopher Bell, the No. 10 would lead the next 20 laps before he and his fellow Fords pitted at lap 34. Retaking the lead when green flag pit stops cycled the field, Almirola led the final 23 laps before taking advantage of side drafting to hold off Joey Logano for the win. As Logano was shifted back to fourth, Almirola held off Bell by 0.041 seconds to secure the victory. Ryan Newman finished third, sandwich Logano with Ryan Preece, who rounded out the top five.

Almirola has finished in the top three in each of his last three Daytona qualifying races. He’s coming off a career-best 18 top ten finishes with SHR last season, though he hasn’t earned a victory in a points race since the 2018 fall event at Talladega. Almirola’s first career victory came in a rain-shortened summer event at Daytona while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014.

Bowman started the race on the pole by virtue of being the fastest car on Wednesday night. He quickly took a conservative approach, moving to the back to avoid chaos, but a vibration forced a visit to pit road, during which the crew raised the hood on his No. 48 Chevrolet. Bowman was able to finish the race in 20th, four laps down. The crew will assess the situation to determined whether a backup car is necessary come Sunday. It will mark Bowman’s first official race in the No. 48 Chevrolet, taking over for retired seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Duel Two

Once the second segment got underway, Byron opted to play things more aggressively in the No. 24 Chevrolet, leading 24 of the first 32 laps. The racing was interrupted at lap 37, shortly before the pit window open, as a multi-car wreck drastically altered the playing field, a get-together that marred the days of Rookie of the Year contenders Chase Briscoe and Anthony Alfredo.

Every lead-lap car visited pit road during the ensuing caution period, with the Fords of Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick assuming the front row of the restart on lap 40 after taking fuel only on their respective stops. Dillon pushed Byron to the lead two laps later, with Martin Truex Jr. later joining the fray. Truex took the lead at lap 52, shuffling Byron to the back. As Truex battled Harvick for the potential win, Byron’s car was heavily damaged in a crash triggered by Garrett Smithley and Brad Keselowski’s get-together. That wreck also ended the days of Ross Chastain and Noah Gragson.

Truex had the lead as NASCAR commenced a two-lap overtime session, and held it going into the white flag lap. However, he was shuffled into the middle with no pushing by Dillon and Wallace, who battled for the lead over the final turns. Bolstered by a push from Harvick’s Ford, Dillon got past Wallace in the final straightaway to capture his first career Duel victory. Wallace earned a runner-up finish in his first race for Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin in the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. Harvick finished third, Busch Clash winner Kyle Busch posted fourth, while defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott concluded the top five.

Ironically, Wallace was also the runner-up when Dillon won the 2018 Daytona 500, a victory earned when he bumped Almirola on the final lap of the race. The affair was a bit of a bittersweet affair for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team, as the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death approaches. Earnhardt perished on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 while running third behind his protege Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Open Cars

Almirola and Dillon were far from the only winners on Thursday night, Several non-chartered, “Open” cars also worked their way into the 500 with strong performances in the Duels, and maybe a bit of luck to go with it. Eight Open drivers attempted to take the four available spots. These invitations to the main event could be earned through either being one of the fastest Open cars on Wednesday or being the best-finishing Open driver during each Duel.

The first Duel race featured Preece, driver of the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet. Though Preece was more or less locked into the Sunday field with the fastest qualifying time amongst the eight Open cars, his fifth-place finish likewise topped that same group in the opening Duel. Thus, with Preece now punching his ticket through the race, the qualifying entry shifted to the second-fastest qualifier, which was Austin Cindric. This played to the detriment of Ty Dillon, Austin’s younger brother, who was passed by Preece on the final lap. Ty ran a strong, consistent race, but his failure to keep Preece behind him resulted in his elimination. Following the shutdown of his team at Germain Racing, Ty Dillon has signed on with Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota on a part-time basis. Alas, this will mark the second consecutive miss at Daytona for GBR, who saw Daniel Suarez wreck in one of last season’s Duels.

Cindric, the defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion will make his Cup debut on Sunday at Daytona despite a dismal 16th-place finish. His quest to partake was seemingly derailed when he took a speeding penalty exiting pit road during green flag pit stops, putting him a lap off the pace. Once it became clear that he wasn’t going to get that lap back, Cindric did what he could to ensure qualifying results would play a role in determining who would go home. His plan worked to fruition, as he helped push Preece ahead of Ty Dillon in the race’s dying stages. Cindric is driving select races in a part-time car for Team Penske while defending his title at the Xfinity level. He will make his full-time debut next with the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing.

With Preece and Cindric advancing, Ty Dillon and Timmy Hill were each eliminated from Daytona 500 contention. The pair will nonetheless race alongside Cindric in the Xfinity Series opener on Saturday late afternoon (5 p.m. ET, FS1).

Things were more straightforward but equally dramatic in the second stanza. Kaz Grala’s Daytona dreams were seemingly dashed when he was involved in the Alfredo/Briscoe fracas. Losing a lap to repair the damage, it appeared Grala could only pray for chaos over the last 20 laps. Gragson, another Xfinity contender seeking to make his Cup debut, appeared to have the inside edge for the spot, though a surprise contender emerged in Smithley, driving the low-budget No. 13 MBM Motorsports Ford. Smithley was likewise involved in the incident that handicapped Grala but was running in the top ten shortly after.

But Smithley’s get-together with Keselowski triggered a large wreck that not only caused heavy damage to Byron’s car but eliminated Gragson with it. Gragson was representing Beard Motorsports in the No. 62 Chevrolet, a team that endured tragedy on January 31 through the death of team owner and founder Mark Beard.

With Gragson and Smithley out, Grala coasted to a 14th-place finish that secured his spot in the 500. He joins fellow transfer David Ragan, who came home 10th and was locked in through qualifying speed. Grala will partake in his second career Cup Series event, having previously subbed for an ill Austin Dillon at Daytona’s road course last season. Grala brought the No. 3 Chevrolet home in the seventh spot.

This time around, Grala will pilot the No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. The team is well known for its exploits at the Xfinity Series level and is looking to expand its reach in Cup this season. Thanks to Grala’s efforts, the team will likely be able to run further Cup Series events, including the return to the Daytona road course next weekend. The team is expected to have former Cup veteran and current Xfinity man A.J. Allmendinger take over.

“(Tonight is) big for Kaulig. They’re planning on running a handful of Cup races this year, not just this one race like they did last year,” Grala said. “Being able to get in, especially now with the format as far as which cars are able to enter each race when there isn’t qualifying, this is a huge day for us, a huge day for that organization as a whole.”

“I think it’s been the worst-kept secret that they have aspirations to get to the Cup Series, racing it full-time down the road, try to be a multi-car team down the road. This is the first small step towards the big picture. I know it’s a victory for everybody on the team.”

For the full Daytona 500 starting lineup, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags