DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Calm seas gave way to frenetic tensions in the second Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona Int’l Speedway Thursday night, with Aric Almirola holding off defending Daytona 500 champion Austin Cindric for the nightcap qualifying race victory.
After a late caution set up a 14-lap shootout to the checkered flag, Almirola battled tooth-and-nail with Todd Gilliland before pulling away from Cindric in a final-lap scramble that completed the field for Sunday’s Great American Race.
Though he may have made it look easy on the final lap, Almirola admitted that he “had his hands full” in the closing laps as he attempted to fight his way to the front.
“[Crew chief] Drew [Blickensderfer] said this Smithfield Ford Mustang was going to be fast, but he said I would probably have my hands full. We kind of went for it in qualifying and put all the speed we could in the car,” noted Almirola, whose Duel win was his second in three years. “We sacrificed some handling, and as you could see tonight, it was a handful, but, man, this is so cool.
“Daytona is such a special place to me. I grew up sitting in those grandstands dreaming about racing here. I want that one on Sunday, though. My boss [Tony Stewart] up in the booth said during that first Duel, ‘I’ve won this race three times, but never did it on Sunday.’ I know Sunday is the big one.
“We’re going to keep focused on that one. The job is not finished.”
Though the night’s first 150-mile Duel went from flag to flag without a caution, that wasn’t the case in the redux, after a wayward side window from Justin Haley’s Chevrolet forced a yellow for debris on lap six.
That slowdown seemingly opened the door for fuel strategy to come into play, with Haley and a handful of others attempting to stretch their gas mileage before the night’s only multi-car incident broke out.
Coming to 19 laps to go, leader Kyle Busch got a shove from Daniel Suarez on the backstretch that sent his No. 8 Chevrolet careening into the outside wall, collecting nearly a half-dozen cars in the process and turning the battle to make the Daytona 500 on its head.
In an instant, Travis Pastrana – who had already locked into the race via qualifying – and Austin Hill, who led the transfer battle for most of the second Duel, both saw their cars damaged and forced out of the race.
That left Indy car journeyman Conor Daly, who couldn’t even make a qualifying attempt Wednesday night due to a broken oil line and struggled with an ill handling car all race long Thursday night, as the sole survivor among the non-chartered teams in the second Duel.
The nine-time Indianapolis 500 starter, driving for Floyd Mayweather’s Money Team Racing, will race in his first Daytona 500 Sunday. He’s the 62nd driver ever to race in both the Indy and Daytona 500s.
Once the transfer drama was settled, Almirola and Larson led the field back to green on lap 47 and opened up a battle royale to the finish line, with five lead changes among four different drivers in the final 14 laps.
Gilliland got to the front with three laps left, but had a wild moment in turn one after the white flag and narrowly avoided crashing his Front Row Motorsports Ford out of the race, allowing Almirola to escape and eventually drive to victory over Cindric by .122 seconds.
Chase Elliott crossed third ahead of Brad Keselowski and Corey LaJoie, with Larson, Gilliland, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Briscoe closing the top 10 finishers in the second Duel.
Daly finished a distant 17th, one lap down to the leaders, but did enough to accomplish the mission.
Meanwhile, Austin Hill did not make the Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports after being involved in the late-race crash on the backstretch. He was joined by Chandler Smith as drivers who failed to qualify.
With the 40-car Daytona 500 starting grid set, the NASCAR Cup Series field will return to the track at 5:30 p.m. ET on Friday for the first of two practice sessions before the Super Bowl of stock car racing.