NSCS: Last to First; Dale Earnhardt Jr. Claims Budweiser Duel No. 1 at Daytona

Jacob Seelman Featured, NASCAR, Southeast 0 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. and CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Report by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America photo —

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he had the “fastest car in the field” in Daytona 500 practice on Wednesday.

He backed it up solidly in primetime on Thursday night.

Earnhardt used a power move to the inside and a push from his teammate Jeff Gordon to wrest the lead away from Matt Kenseth with 17 laps to go in the first Budweiser Duel qualifying race for Sunday’s Daytona 500 — and then held off the field on a five lap dash to the checkered flag to go from last to first and score his fourth career Duel victory.

“We’ve had a great car all week, and I’m so glad to be able to get through the Duel in one piece because I know how good this race car is,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. “We’ve got a couple more practice sessions to go through — we’ll try to stay out of trouble in those — and as long as we 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. Made a lot of good moves there at the end. T.J. Majors (spotter) deserves a ton of credit for helping us win that race — he gave me all the information I needed to help keep those guys behind me. It was hard to keep them all back there because they were all stacking up, but we did it.”

By virtue of his Duel win, Junior will start third in the 57th Daytona 500 on Sunday.

500 polesitter Gordon finished second ahead of Team Penske’s Joey Logano. Tony Stewart came home in fourth, with Clint Bowyer rallying to round out the top five in a backup car, after he crashed during the first round of group qualifying last Sunday.

Kenseth drove his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota to the front of the field ahead of Gordon in the early stages of the race, leading the first 17 laps as Gordon fell back into the middle of the pack before Casey Mears lost an engine in turn two (right in front of Tony Stewart) to bring out the first caution of the race.

“I don’t have any thoughts right now other than everything’s bad,” a dejected Mears said after his early exit. “The nature of this place has been really good to us in the past, and obviously when something like this happens you just feel so helpless. It’s really out of your control. You want a fighting chance.”

Mears, however, would be able to breathe after the second Duel concluded — grabbing the final points provisional to slot 42nd on the grid for the 57th Daytona 500.

While the fluid was cleaned up from the GEICO No. 13, the field came down pit road and Gordon used his number one pit stall to win the race off pit road and reassume the lead. However, Kenseth quickly took the point back at lap 25, two laps after the race’s first restart.

The yellow flew for the second time three laps later — for a big crash coming through the trioval sparked when A.J. Allmendinger and Johnny Sauter made contact, sending Sauter across the nose of the No. 47 and ripping the front nose up when the No. 83 BK Racing Toyota dug into the infield grass.

“I’m disappointed,” Sauter said following the crash. “We were riding along there and the 47 just got us. It’s just one of those deals.”

Allmendinger was visibly frustrated, not happy with being in a three-wide situation before the halfway point.

“Just disappointing, (the car) was fast,” Allmendinger said. “It was fun running up front, but we just got stuck in the middle there. It just sucks. I hate this racing.”

“I was trying to bail out of the middle because I didn’t want to be there. (It’s) just the way this racing is.”

On the restart, Kenseth surged back to the lead but Earnhardt glued to the back bumper of Kenseth’s Toyota to move to the runner-up spot, and would surge on the bottom to take the lead at lap 35 with help from teammate Kasey Kahne. Kenseth, however, was not done — going by himself to the bottom to take the lead back at lap 38 and make one more stab at taking the win.

Junior would not be denied though, and one he took the lead for the final time he never gave it back. However, one final wrench came into the works — and into Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 plans — when Bayne spun and smacked the wall in turn two with nine laps to go, drawing the final caution and setting up the five lap shootout.

“It just took off about like the 17 (teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) did,” Bayne said over the team radio. “I wasn’t even trying anything — I just went into the corner and it went straight sideways.”

Bayne however, was able to breathe a sigh of relief, falling back on the owner points Carl Edwards accrued in 2014 to be able to make the Daytona 500 — the No. 6 Advocare Ford will start

As Junior paced the final five laps to win the race, a number of long-shot underdogs charged forward to race their way into the Daytona 500. Landon Cassill (9th), Cole Whitt (10th), Michael McDowell (12th), J.J. Yeley (13th) and Michael Annett (14th) were among the surprise names to finish inside the top 16 and clinch their starting berths in Sunday’s Great American Race.

“It’s an amazing relief,” Cassill said of being locked into the 500. “The biggest thing I needed to focus on was to put myself in a position where the cars behind me, I could control their decisions.”

“With five to go, I had Matt Kenseth behind me — I was on the outside line — and because of the cars that were underneath us, I was in a position I could control his decisions,” the Cedar Rapids, Iowa native explained. “He really didn’t want to be pushing me — he wanted to go around me — but fortunately I had the upper hand on him. He’s the one that pushed me up into the top 10 and kept me in the field. So, thank you, Matt, even though you didn’t intentionally do it.  I helped you help me.”

McDowell set the fastest time during second practice for the Daytona 500, but was in and out of a transfer spot all race long — until the very end.

“Coming to the white flag we were out — we were about 20th,” McDowell said of the final lap from his vantage point. “Just had a great run and everything went our way. This is awesome. this is a group effort but man, that last lap was intense. I’m just so thankful to make it.”

Ty Dillon, driving for Circle Sport Racing in partnership with his grandfather Richard Childress, finished 16th and took the last transfer spot to race in his first-ever Daytona 500.

“It means so much,” an elated Dillon said of being able to make the Great American Race. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve been coming here since I was born with my family and watching my grandfather’s cars race and win races. I’ve seen so much history down here and I always wanted to be a part of this.”

“I love NASCAR.  I love our sport for the passion that it takes and the history and everything that’s made it. I always wanted to be a part of the highest level and racing in the biggest races. Tonight I was able to accomplish a goal I’ve wanted to accomplish for a long time and I can’t thank everybody enough for allowing me to fulfill my dream.”

” I learned a lot tonight. We don’t have any points either,” Dillon reminded, “so we’re going to go for it now that we’re in the race on Sunday.”

Justin Marks and Ron Hornaday were the two drivers from Duel No. 1 who were eliminated from the Daytona 500 field by virtue of not finishing inside the top 15.



RESULTS: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; Budweiser Duel No. 1; Daytona International Speedway; Feb. 19, 2015

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  2. Jeff Gordon (Daytona 500 polesitter)
  3. Joey Logano
  4. Tony Stewart
  5. Clint Bowyer
  6. Kevin Harvick
  7. Kasey Kahne
  8. Jamie McMurray
  9. Landon Cassill
  10. Cole Whitt
  11. Paul Menard
  12. Michael McDowell
  13. J.J. Yeley
  14. Michael Annett
  15. Kyle Larson
  16. Ty Dillon
  17. Matt Kenseth
  18. Justin Marks
  19. Brad Keselowski
  20. Aric Almirola
  21. Ron Hornaday
  22. Trevor Bayne
  23. A.J. Allmendinger
  24. Johnny Sauter
  25. Casey Mears

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