Straight-line speed in qualifying is one thing. Speed and drivability in the draft is something quite different, as the Ford camp proved decisively in Thursday night’s Gander RV Duel at Daytona 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.
Kevin Harvick led the last 44 laps on Thursday night to win the first Duel and secure the third starting spot in Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano captured the second Duel in much more dramatic fashion, charging from fourth to first on the final lap to beat Clint Bowyer to the finish line by .126 seconds.
With a late pass of Tyler Reddick, who was already locked into for the Daytona 500 based on qualifying speed, Parker Kligerman earned the transfer spot into Sunday’s race with a 12th-place finish in the first Duel.
Brendan Gaughan grabbed the transfer position in the caution-free second Duel by finishing 15th, ahead of the Open cars of Casey Mears (who was already locked into the 500 on speed) and Joey Gase.
In Duel No. 1, Harvick finished .165 seconds ahead of fellow Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who edged Paul Menard at the line for the runner-up position. Matt DiBenedetto ran fourth, followed by Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace.
Aric Almirola ran third in the second Duel behind his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, giving Ford drivers the top three positions in each of the Duels in the debut year of the Mustang in Cup racing—a far cry from Sunday’s time trials, where Chevrolets posted the five best laps in single-car runs.
With two Mustangs behind him, Harvick didn’t expect any outlandish moves in the closing laps of Duel 1.
“I’m just glad we finally came out on the right side of this, and everything’s not tore up,” said Harvick, who had finished fourth, third and second in his previous three Daytona qualifying races.
The Duel victory was the first for Logano, who won the Daytona 500 in 2015. As the laps wound down, he was planning his move and got an assist from Team Penske teammate and drafting partner Ryan Blaney.
“You have the whole race to think about making a move, and we were all out there just waiting,” Logano said. “Everyone behind me really wanted to go, and I just knew that I had to wait. The later you can do it, the less the risk if it doesn’t work. I got a good run from the 12 (Blaney) behind me and went to the bottom and got a good run.
“Was able to side-draft the 10 (Almirola) and pull him back and just barely get enough to break that plane in front of the 14 and clear him up. From there I was just blocking to the finish. My spotter, TJ (Majors), did a great job feeding me all the information I needed to make a decision. We had a really fast Shell Pennzoil Mustang.
“It’s cool to see a couple Mustangs in Victory Lane already. I hope it continues for the big race on Sunday. Great start for our race team. Off we go.”
Bowyer led 41 laps. Logano led one—the one that counted.
A two-time Duel victor, and the winner of the 2007 Daytona 500, Harvick will start third in Sunday’s race, with Stenhouse behind him in fifth and Menard in seventh. Logano claimed the fourth starting position with his victory. Bowyer will take the green in sixth, Almirola in eighth.
Neither Stenhouse nor Menard could mount an effective challenge against Harvick in the closing laps of the first Duel.
“I spent the last 25 laps trying to figure out exactly what I was going to do,” Stenhouse said. “I think Paul was trying the same thing behind me. Paul would get a run on me out of the tri-oval. I felt like I’d get a run on Kevin out of the back straightaway. The 21 (Menard) wasn’t close enough to us, so I couldn’t make a move. Felt like I’d get stalled out.
“Tried to back my entry up to the tri-oval. I was going to try it going into (Turn) 1. Nothing really materialized there. Down the back straightaway, the 21 went to go to the inside. I thought about blocking him. I felt like I could at least finish second if we stayed on the top. I was really kind of hoping the 19 (Truex) would have a little bit better run to get to us, maybe push us up close to the 4 (Harvick). Just nothing really materialized.”
For his part, Harvick felt his car was strong enough to keep Stenhouse and Menard behind him.
“They were going to have to have a pretty big head of steam,” Harvick said. “They were going to fill those holes pretty quick. Unless they had a huge head of steam, they weren’t going to clear me without a whole line of cars, unless the whole line was going to bail on me, which is highly possible.
“But I doubt they would have done that. I think at that particular time, especially in the qualifying races, everybody wants to win, but they don’t want to tear up their cars either. You want to put as little work as possible on your team, get to the race on Sunday. There’s still points on the line and a trophy. You had to be on your toes. Our car was fast enough to guard. They got side by side. That just slowed everything down.”
In a three-wide situation on Lap 26—with Jimmie Johnson on the inside, Kyle Busch in the middle and Tyler Reddick on the outside—Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet moved up the track into the left rear quarter panel of Busch’s Toyota, sending Busch spinning into the infield to cause the 60-lap race’s only caution.
After pitting with a flat tire and exiting alone, Busch soon lost a lap and ultimately finished 18th. But he teamed in a two-car draft with Kligerman, a fellow Toyota driver, to make the crucial pass of Reddick.
“First of all, I have to thank Kyle Busch, us linking that TRD Toyota power together,” Kligerman said. “Without him, there’s no way I get by Reddick.”
Daytona 500 pole winner William Byron, who did not compete in last Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash, dropped to the back mid-race and used the final lap for a practice pit stop before coming home 16th—and preserving his car for the top starting spot in Sunday’s Great American Race.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!