DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Aric Almirola, who decided to return to racing this year after announcing his retirement, made that decision look good Thursday by winning the second qualifying race for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Almirola outran Austin Cindric, last year’s Daytona 500 winner, to cross the finish line first. Chase Elliott was third.
MORE: Daytona 500 starting lineup
The leaders raced through a risky final lap. Kyle Larson was bump-drafting second-year driver Todd Gilliland, who briefly had the lead, when Gilliland temporarily lost control and dropped off the banking. With sparks flying underneath his car, Gilliland returned to the racing groove but had lost a chance to win the race. He finished seventh.
MORE: Joey Logano wins first Daytona qualifier
Almirola said he had his hands full over the closing laps. “Daytona is such a special place for me,” he told Fox Sports. “I want the big one on Sunday. We’re going to keep focused on that one. The job’s not finished. And I’m supposed to be retired.
“It was a track position race all day, and I certainly didn’t want to lose the track position. I wanted to get back to the lead. I wanted to control the finish. I didn’t want to wait on other people behind me to help me make the moves I needed to make. I wanted to make the move, and I was able to get a run. The 5 (Kyle Larson) gave me a really good push. The 38 (Gilliland) got out a little bit too far, and I got a good run on him and was able to pull off a good move.”
MORE: Qualifying race 2 results
Kyle Busch, making his Daytona debut for Richard Childress Racing, led a long single-file draft in the middle laps of the race. He was in first place on lap 42 and was running inches in front of second-place Daniel Suarez when apparent contact by Suarez sent Busch sailing into the outside wall. Busch’s car bounced into the middle of the track and caused much of the rest of the field to attempt evasive maneuvers.
Busch said the accident was the result of contact from Suarez. “I was getting pushed for two straight laps,” he said. “Finally it didn’t want to hang on any more. It overloaded the left rear. … I don’t see the sense in it. It really boggles me.”
#NASCAR … Here is what Kyle Busch said after exiting the infield care center. pic.twitter.com/lv2bh8GZej
— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) February 17, 2023
Austin Hill, who was trying to put a non-charter car into the 500, was collected in the melee and dropped into his pit with front-end damage. His team could not repair the car, opening the door for IndyCar regular Conor Daly, who finished 17th, to qualify for the 500.
Daly’s car had major issues early in the race, but he inherited the 500 starting spot when Hill had problems.
“We were inherently unlucky for the last 36 hours, but we got lucky,” Daly said. “I wish I could have said that I drove it in on pure pace, but it was just crazy. When we went out there, the car was bouncing around. I had no idea what was going on. I thought the drivetrain was broken, and Tony (Eury, crew chief) just made it better every time. We got lucky with the yellows to try to get some experience, but it is pretty crazy.”
Action sports star Travis Pastrana, racing on the Daytona oval for the first time, ran near the back of the field much of the race and was involved in the Busch incident. His car had minor damage. Pastrana earned a starting spot in the 500 in qualifying Wednesday night.