|Dale Earnhardt Jr charged to the front and held on like a master|
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…”
For Johnson, the win in the second Duel was a continuation of a week that couldn’t have gone better.
“It’s a special night,” Johnson said. “What a race car. I’m stoked for my teammate (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) to win the first Duel. We won the second, and Jeff (Gordon) and I have the front row locked down. It’s been an awesome week for all our Hendrick Motorsports cars.
“I’m just happy to start out the week like we have.”
On Lap 57 of the second Duel, Patrick spun in Turn 3 after Hamlin made a move to her inside in very close quarters.
“I mean, we’re superspeedway racing,” Hamlin said, after he and Patrick went their separate ways. “I treat her as equal as anyone on the race track. She deserves her spot here, but you have to be able to run close to somebody on a superspeedway. You have to have your car stable enough to handle those situations and, to me, it’s not much different than what it was with the 22 (Joey Logano) and the 4 (Kevin Harvick) last week (in the Sprint Unlimited) – only I wasn’t pushing her.
“I was just close to her and her car got loose and she spun. Thank goodness she got her way in the 500. I didn’t want to be responsible for that. I treat her as an equal on the race track. I’m not going to say, ‘It’s Danica, so I’ve got to make sure I just leave some extra room.’ If you’re out here in the Cup Series, you have to be able to handle those situations.”
Patrick wasn’t buying it.
“I’m confident other cars get very close, and things like that don’t happen,” said Patrick, who finished 10th after Busch propelled her through the field. “Done thousands of miles of this speedway racing now, and I haven’t found that to be a problem. So I just think that he’s wrong.
“I think that he’s too close. I think that he’s taking the air and getting it off the spoiler, and he’s not squared up either. That’s also part of the problem. I don’t know. Maybe he likes my left rear.”
Notes: Ty Dillon qualified for his first Daytona 500, as did 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.
- Reid Spencer / NASCAR Wire Service