Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a jump start on his hopes of winning back-to-back Daytona 500s, leading the final 16 laps to win the first of two Budweiser Duel 150s Thursday evening at Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt started at the back of the 25-car pack in the first Duel. Even though the Duel 150s are not points-paying races, it still marked the first win for Earnhardt with new crew chief Greg Ives.
“I’m so glad to be able to get through the Duel in one piece because I know how good this car is,” Earnhardt, who had a slim chance of missing the race after his qualifying speed was disallowed, told FoxSports1. “We’re going to have a fun day on Sunday.”
Earnhardt, who earned his fourth career win in the Duels, held off a late surge by Daytona 500 pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, followed by Joey Logano, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, who also wasn’t guaranteed a Daytona 500 spot after a qualifying crash.
“It’s definitely a breath of fresh air,” Bowyer said. “If it wasn’t for adversity, how would you have any fun in life? It feels good to finally get a good run.”
Sixth through 10th were Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray and longshots Landon Cassill and Cole Whitt, who both raced their way into the 500.
Finishing 11th through 16th, which means they all will compete Sunday, were Paul Menard, Michael McDowell, J.J. Yeley, Michael Annett, Kyle Larson and Ty Dillon all made it in.
“To put my name in (this sport’s) greatest race, we have no points, we’re going to go for it,” Dillon said. “I’m in the Daytona 500, you don’t know how much this means to me. It’s so awesome.”
Added Annett, “That’s awesome. I can maybe finally get a good night of sleep and breathe a little bit.”
Justin Marks and veteran Ron Hornaday Jr. failed to qualify for the Daytona 500.
The first caution was for an engine failure in the Chevrolet of Casey Mears (25th).
The yellow flew again on Lap 28, Johnny Sauter and AJ Allmendinger collided, collecting Aric Almirola in the process.
Sauter’s Toyota (heavy front end damage) and Allmendinger’s Chevy (heavy right front side damage, including a bent right wheel) were eliminated in the crash.
Sauter would have wait until the end of the second Duel race to learn if he will or won’t make the 500 on Sunday.
“I was just riding along, minding my own business, and (Allmendinger) just got us there in the left rear quarter panel,” Sauter said. “It’s just a bummer deal. It’s unfortunate. We’ll just see what plays out and see if we can get through.”
Allmendinger, who also had to wait until the end of the second Duel to confirm he made the 500, took blame for the incident.
“I’m just disappointed,” Allmendinger said. “Our car was fast. It was fun running up front. I just got stuck in the middle there.
“It just sucks, I hate this racing, I really do. Hopefully, we’ll get in the 500. … I was trying to do the right thing. I was trying to bail out of the middle. If I got the 83, that’s my bad. That’s the way this racing is.”
On Lap 51, Trevor Bayne caused another caution flag when it appeared he lost the handle on his Ford and hit the outside wall.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2. Jeff Gordon
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. JJ 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 Jr.
22. Trevor Bayne
23. AJ Allmendinger
24. Johnny Sauter
25. Casey Mears
1. Matt Kenseth … 32 laps
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. … 21 laps
3. Jeff Gordon … 5 laps
4. Trevor Bayne … 1 lap
5. Jamie McMurray … 1 lap