The Daytona Duels are often the most exciting races at Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway. And they are sometimes a precursor of what to expect in the Daytona 500.
The drivers who win the Daytona Duels earn starting spots near the front of the field and are generally expected to be among the drivers to beat in the Daytona 500. Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon stole the headlines Thursday night, earning the Row 2 starting spots behind the front row of Alex Bowman and William Byron.
It doesn’t always turn out that way, of course. Since 1959, only nine drivers who have won one of the Daytona Duels have gone on to win the Daytona 500. And most of them are among the biggest names in the history of the sport and typically strong contenders at Daytona — Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. There are also exceptions — Earnhardt won one of the Daytona Duels a record 12 times, but won only one Daytona 500 (1998).
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So what can we learn from Thursday’s Daytona Duels? Let’s take a look.
Could Daytona Duels lead to upset in Daytona 500?
Almirola, who won the first of the Daytona Duels, has never won the Daytona 500 and has just two career Cup Series victories. Austin Dillon, winner of the second of the Daytona Duels, has just three career victories, but one of them came in the 2018 Daytona 500.
Of the other top finishers who were in contention to win one of the Daytona Duels, Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace have also never won the Daytona 500. Byron, who dominated the second of the Daytona Duels, won the last Cup Series race on the Daytona oval last year.
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Who had the fastest cars in the Daytona Duels?
The Fords are fast, especially Almirola and Joey Logano, who worked together throughout the first Duel and wound up racing for the win. Almirola led 52 of 60 laps, most of them with Logano on his bumper.
If you’re a Ford Racing official, you can’t ask for better teamwork than what Almirola and Logano displayed — they stayed hooked up until the final lap, and then raced for the win. Almirola, driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, and Penske’s Logano drafted so well together they were able to keep the Toyota’s of Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell from hooking up and making a serious challenge.
The Fords are clearly fast, and if they work that well on Sunday, Almirola, Logano or another Ford driver could wind up victory lane. Ryan Newman finished third in a Ford in the first of the Daytona Duels, while Kevin Harvick, Almirola’s teammate, finished third in the second of the Daytona Duels.
“This thing was a hot rod,” Almirola said. “We’ve got an incredible race car and I can’t wait for the Daytona 500.”
Almirola has just two NASCAR Cup Series victories, but his win in the Daytona Duels shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. His first career victory came in the July race at Daytona; his other was on the sister track at Talladega. With drafting help from Harvick or another fast Ford, he could win at Daytona again — this time the big one.
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Who else was fast in the Daytona Duels?
While Fords dominated the first race, the second of the Daytona Duels saw a broader mix of car makes at the front. Byron, who started on the pole, led 34 laps in a Chevrolet before getting swept into a late wreck. Dillon, also driving a Chevrolet, led two laps and made a specular move on the last lap to beat Bubba Wallace in a Toyota.
A Chevy, a Ford and a Toyota each finished in the top three in the second of the Daytona Duels, while each manufacturer had two cars in the top six. As usual, the Daytona 500 could come down to which teammates — from the same organization or manufacturer — can hook up in the draft late in the race.
Bubba Wallace could win the Daytona 500
Wallace entered Daytona as one of the drivers to watch as he debuts with 23XI Racing, the new Toyota team owned Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin. He showed in the Daytona Duels Thursday that he has a fast car and he knows how to drive it to the front.
Wallace’s best career finish was second behind Dillon in the 2018 Daytona 500. The second of the Daytona Duels was a flashback to that race, with Dillon holding off Wallace at the end.
With Joe Gibbs Racing support, Wallace has a faster car this time, and showed it on Thursday. He led three laps and went from the back to the front multiple times. With drafting help from boss Denny Hamlin or other Toyota drivers, he could take Jordan to victory lane in their first race together.
Perhaps most telling, Wallace was disappointed and even a bit distraught over his performance on the final lap of the Daytona Duels.
“A lot of mistakes,” he said. “A good debut, but nothing to be really happy about for myself. It’s okay for drivers to be hard on themselves. That’s how we motivate ourselves to go out and do better. … I know I’ve got a lot to learn here.”
Can Denny Hamlin win his fourth Daytona 500?
Hamlin doesn’t appear to have a dominant car in his bid for a record third straight Daytona 500 win. Hamlin ducked out of the draft early in the first of the Daytona Duels before working his way back toward the front. He hung around the top five most of the race, but couldn’t mount a challenge at the end.
Part of Hamlin’s challenge was that there were just two other Toyotas in the 22-car field, and one of them (Ty Dillon) was racing for a spot in the Daytona 500. Hamlin and Christopher Bell tried to draft together at the end, but the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates got separated and Hamlin fell back before running out of gas.
Hamlin was likely just being cautious, and we probably didn’t get a good indication of what he really has. Rest assured, the three-time Daytona 500 winner will be there on Sunday.
Ryan Newman could produce feel-good story in Daytona 500
Newman is clearly not having any flashbacks from his frightening crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 last year. Newman was as aggressive as ever in the first of the Daytona Duels, charging from the back to the front over the final 20 laps and finishing third.
Newman was headed for the checkered flag when he got wrecked on the final lap last year. If the Fords are as fast as they looked Thursday, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner will be in contention.