February 21, 2014 — By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service — Tom Pennington/Getty Images photos — DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Matt Kenseth outran Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne in a three-wide finish Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway, as the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet won the first 150-mile qualifying race in the Budweiser Duels at Daytona.
Sprint Unlimited winner Denny Hamlin took the second Duel under caution after a wreck in Turn 4 of the final lap ended a run that had been caution-free to that point. The win gave JGR a sweep of the first three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events at Daytona and cemented the Gibbs drivers as favorites in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Jeff Gordon ran second to Hamlin, with Kurt Busch, Paul Menard,Brian Scott and Trevor Bayne claiming third through sixth, respectively. The last-lap wreck totaled the No. 48 Chevrolet of defending Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, who already had destroyed a car in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited.
In a race that was devoid of yellow flags from start to finish, Kenseth drafted back past Harvick after the No. 4 Chevrolet made a move to the inside of Turn 4 on the final lap of Duel No. 1 and won the race to the stripe by .022 seconds. Kahne took the lead duo three-wide to the inside in the tri-oval and finished third, .062 seconds behind Kenseth.
Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet failed post-race inspection, however, and his finish in the Duel was disallowed. Harvick nevertheless qualified for Sunday’s Daytona 500 but will start 38th.
In the second Duel, Johnson triggered the wreck when he ran out of fuel and slowed in the final corner. Jamie McMurray nudged the back of Johnson’s Chevy, turning the car and starting a chain reaction that saw Clint Bowyer’s car flipping and landing on its wheels and Martin Truex’s Chevy in flames as it crossed the finish line in eighth place.
Truex had qualified on the outside of the front row for the Daytona 500 but will give up his starting position and drop to the back because the wreck will force him to use a backup car.
“I feel terrible,” Johnson said. “To tear up that many race cars, to see the No. 15 flip — I feel terrible, and certainly want to apologize to everyone. I tried to get up out of the way; I had my hand out of the side (signaling he was out of fuel).
“But last lap coming to the checkered, there is so much going on right there. So much energy in the pack that I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out, because guys warned me about it — and it did. Thankfully, everyone is all right, and I certainly feel bad for the torn-up race cars.”
Hamlin, on the other hand, is clearly on a roll.
“Once that snowball starts to roll, it’s hard to stop it,” said Hamlin, who will line up fourth in the Daytona 500, with Gordon and Busch in sixth and eighth behind him. “And right now, we’re just on a heck of a run.”
Brothers Bobby Labonte and Terry Labonte, both past series champions, were far enough behind the wreck to roll through unaffected, and, ultimately, both raced their way into the field for Sunday.
In winning the first-ever Duel run under the lights, Kenseth claimed the third starting spot for Sunday’s Daytona 500. Because of Harvick’s infraction, Kahne will start fifth. Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were third and fourth in the first Duel, after Harvick’s penalty, and will start the Daytona 500 seventh and ninth, respectively.
“The race ended up unfolding great for us,” said Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. “We learned a lot in the race. I had the car in some positions that I wouldn’t want to do again if I had to do it over. I was able to make some moves, get up to second behind Junior there for a long time, ultimately take the lead.
“At the end, I saw Kevin making that move. You weren’t going to be able to block it without wrecking. I just tried to get back to him, and, thankfully, I had enough time to get that run to the finish line.”
Danica Patrick locked up a spot in the 56th running of the Great American Race with a 13th-place run. Tony Stewart, Patrick’s car owner and teammate, raced his way into the Daytona 500 field with a 10th-place result, after Harvick’s penalty.
Stewart missed the last 15 events of the 2013 season after breaking his right leg in an Aug. 5 sprint car accident in Iowa but could have relied on a past champion’s provisional berth had he not finished in the top 15 in his Duel.
Cole Whitt and Alex Bowman each will start the most prestigious NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race for the first time after finishing 11th and 14th in their qualifier, respectively.
Daytona 500 pole winner Austin Dillon came home 18th in the first Duel but accomplished his most important objective — keeping the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet intact for the start of Sunday’s race.
“Yeah, we ran on the outside there for a while,” Dillon said. “As soon as we got kind of going backwards and three-wide or whatever, I said ‘Alright, now it’s time to go back there and play the patient game.’ It’s no fun, but we get to start on the pole for the Daytona 500 with a really fast car.”
Whitt and Swan Racing teammate Parker Kligerman both wrecked in practice on Wednesday. Kligerman went to a backup car and ran 17th but made the field on an owner points provisional. Whitt’s team worked tirelessly to repair his No. 26 Toyota.
“We weren’t ready to give up,” said Whitt, who cracked the top 15 with a strong last-lap run. “We knew coming down here — it was already hard for us to even get down here, let alone the things that happened to our team (Wednesday) — not just our car, from Swan Energy losing two cars.
“My guys pulled together and made it happen. My hat is off to them. Everything so far has just been pretty amazing. To be in the Daytona 500 is something I’ve dreamed of my whole life. Kind of a hard way to do it, but being out and back in with just a lap or so to go is pretty gnarly.”
In the second Duel, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski led Laps 2-35, but his race fell apart when the No. 2 Ford was flagged for speeding on pit road during a Lap 36 stop. A subsequent flat tire put Keselowski three laps down. Though he finished last in the second Duel, Keselowski made the field as the sixth-fastest qualifier and will start 33rd on Sunday.
Eric McClure, Ryan Truex, Morgan Shepherd, Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell failed to make the 43-car field. Shepherd, 72, was attempting to become the oldest driver to qualify for the Daytona 500.