Thursday night's NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona were a tale of two totally different races. One was mostly mild with an electric finish, while the other was chaotic from start to finish. But at the end of it all, the 2023 Daytona 500 field was set.
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Who won the Duels?
Joey Logano took the victory in Duel 1, and while he dominated the event by leading a race-high 29 laps, the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford Mustang had to hold off a fierce charge from Christopher Bell on the final lap of the race.
But, unlike in 2022, Logano made all of the right blocks and escaped the finish incident-free, and collected the victory. This win marks Logano's third-career win in Daytona 500 qualifying races.
"A little smarter from what I did last year, a lot of lessons learned," Logano laughed. "A total team effort. I said it out there on the start-finish line, it takes a total team effort to win out here on a superspeedway. You’ve got to execute the strategy correctly. You’ve got to execute everything on the racetrack. Coleman did an amazing job up there painting the picture of what was going on behind me, getting ready for the intense moment that was gonna happen on the last lap.
"You know it was gonna happen. It’s just staying calm and making the right blocks at the right time and not making the right blocks at the right time, and positioned ourselves to where I was gonna be in the front there at the end. Blaney helped me a lot there at the end, sticking with his Ford friend, instead of pushing that Toyota, so it worked out really well."
Aric Almirola made it a clean sweep on the night for Ford. While Logano's win came in a tame race, Almirola didn't have that luxury as Duel 2 was quite chaotic.
However, after a bunch of pushing, shoving, and near-crashing on the final lap, Almirola was able to snake his No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang through to score the victory.
The win in Duel 2 is Almirola's second-career Daytona Duel win, but unlike Logano, Almirola has still never hoisted the Harley J. Earl trophy. He has his eye on the prize in his final full-time NASCAR Cup Series season.
"Daytona is such a special place to me. I've grew up sitting in those grandstands dreaming about racing here," Almirola said "I want that one on Sunday, though. My boss up in the booth during that first Duel, he said, I've won this race three times, but yet to do it on Sunday. I know Sunday is the big one. We're going to keep focused on that one. The job is not finished."
Which Open Teams and Drivers Locked In?
Going into the night, Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana had already secured a place in the Daytona 500 field by way of their qualifying speeds. However, there were still four drivers battling for the remaining two positions in the 40-car field.
Zane Smith had a very good No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang, which allowed him to cruise to securing his place in the Daytona 500 field from Duel 1. Zane Smith was also aided by Chandler Smith being busted for speeding on pit road, which led to the Kaulig Racing car going a lap down in the Duel.
Just so proud of everyone. Wellcare and better, Ford Performance. I don't know what life is. I had Jimmie Johnson parked behind me. I watched him all my life growing up and still is my idol. Just unbelievable being in the Great American Race.
In Duel 2, it looked like a near certainty that Austin Hill would advance the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet into the field for the Daytona 500, but things got crazy with 20 laps left in the race. Kyle Busch, who was leading the race in Richard Childress Racing's No. 8 machine, received a bump from Daniel Suarez, which upset Busch's car.
The No. 8 Chevrolet Camaro went straight into the outside wall, and in the chaos, Austin Hill was collected along with Riley Herbst and Travis Pastrana.
Here is the crash that changed everything with 20 laps remaining in Duel 2:
As a result of the crash, Hill's hopes of advancing into the Daytona 500 came to an abrupt end.
"I was on the top and saw someone about lost it, can’t remember who, but I knew it was getting dicey. Going down the backstretch I actually rolled out of the throttle a little bit, but I had guys behind me and it wasn’t like I could jump out of the throttle," Hill said. "I saw the wreck started happening and dirt started coming across the race track.
"When the dirt was going across the track I kind of lost sight of where the cars were that were wrecked and the next thing I knew was I was trying to get on the brakes pretty hard and I don’t know if I got in the dirt and it got me loose or the 15 tagged me, I have no idea. Either way, I started going toward the outside wall and I got a lot of damage."
Hill's misfortunes spelled fortune for Conor Daly, who drives for The Money Team Racing. The No. 50 Chevrolet Camaro has been plagued by mechanical gremlins all week long, but even with Daly finishing the Duel one lap off the pace, it was enough to secure his first-career Daytona 500 start.
Well, we were inherently unlucky for the last 36 hours, but we got lucky. I wish I could have said that I drove it in on pure pace, but it was just crazy.
While Daly's car suffered from electrical issues, which prevented him from taking a lap during Wednesday's qualifying session, the car had a totally different issue on Thursday.
"When we went out there, the car was bouncing around. I had no idea what was going on," Daly explained after the Duel. "I thought the drivetrain was broken, and Tony just made it better every time. We got lucky with the yellows to try to get some experience, but it is pretty crazy. This race, I've watched it for so many years and so much crazy stuff can happen, and thankfully we were on the right side of the craziness. It's pretty amazing."
Photo Credit: Craig White / TobyChristie.com