The Budweiser Duel at Daytona, NASCAR’s twin qualifying races that set the field for the Daytona 500, enjoyed its first setting in prime time on Thursday evening. While the week leading up to the event witnessed practice crashes that forced seven teams to back-up cars, the Duel was a comparatively composed affair — until the final turn of the night.
A grinding crash that swept up seven cars marred an otherwise clean night of racing. Those involved included defending Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson, front-row qualifier Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, David Ragan and Michael Waltrip.
Meanwhile, Joe Gibbs Racing continued its impressive Speedweeks as Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin swept the Duel events, making its three-car stable the prohibitive favorite for Sunday. Hamlin also won Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race.
The first Duel was a clean event, run entirely under green. However, the calm nature turned dramatic, as two distinct drafting lines — one led by Kenseth, the other by Kevin Harvick — turned into a scrum coming off Turn 4 of the final lap. When Kasey Kahne dipped low in the tri-oval, the trio crossed the line in three-wide formation.
“I saw Kevin making that move. You weren’t going to be able to block it without wrecking, “ Kenseth said. “I just tried to get back to him and, thankfully, I had enough time to get that run to the finish line.”
Kenseth, who led two times for 31 laps, nosed out the win by a miniscule .022 seconds. Harvick and Kahne crossed the line second and third; Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top 5.
Harvick’s No. 4 car failed post-race inspection, cited as exceeding the maximum split on the track bar. Thus, his result was thrown out and he transferred into the 500 via 2013 owner points.
Austin Dillon, who is on the pole for Sunday’s 500, led the first 14 laps of the first Duel but faded to a 19th-place showing.
The second Duel was largely a single-file show. Hamlin’s Toyota led following the field’s pit stop with a row of Chevrolets manned by Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray lying in wait. They made their move on the backstretch of the final lap, as Johnson and McMurray jumped to the high lane, while Busch and Gordon remained low with Hamlin.
As the field exited Turn 4, Johnson’s car, low on fuel, sputtered and was clipped by McMurray. The melee ensued from there. As Bowyer’s car flipped and Waltrip nosed into the pit wall, Hamlin fended off Busch and Gordon to collect his second career Duel win.
“I saw with Kenseth in the first race (that) he stayed on the top line until he got off of Turn 4 coming to the checkered flag,” Hamlin said. “I thought what would be best for me is to take the bottom (lane) early and to make those guys (Busch, Gordon) make the decision to go high. Once it jumbled up the field it gave me a good defensive position.”
For Johnson, who was unhurt in the last-lap crash, the incident cost him a second car in Speedweeks, as he spun into the inside wall in the Sprint Unlimited.
“I tried to get out of the way; I had my hand out of the side,” Johnson said of warning those behind him he was slowing. “But last lap, coming to the checkers — there is so much going on right there, so much energy in the pack. I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out.”
Dillon will start on the pole for the Daytona 500. Martin Truex Jr., who qualified second, will start in the rear of the field after going to a back-up car following his involvement in the accident. Kenseth and Hamlin will line up in the second row; Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kahne and Gordon will comprise row three.
By Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro