DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Retaking the lead with five laps left in the first of Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel 150-mile qualifying races, Dale Earnhardt Jr. cruised to a dominating victory and grabbed the third staring spot for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
In the second Duel, reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch took the checkered flag under caution after a wild last-lap wreck took out the cars of Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, AJ Allmendinger and Danica Patrick and damaged the No. 41 Chevrolet of Kurt Busch.
Kenseth will go to a backup car and start from the rear in the Daytona 500, surrendering the second starting spot he earned during last Sunday’s time trials.
"I guess it was quiet and calm there for a long time, and the last lap just went kind of crazy," Busch said. "Great car. These guys at Joe Gibbs Racing did a phenomenal job this winter building some new pieces for us to come down here with and have some fun.
"Looking forward to starting the Daytona 500 in the fourth spot, but I think I will actually get the outside front row now that Kenseth got caught up in that mess and tore up his car."
Driving a chassis nicknamed "Amelia" for famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, Earnhardt won his Duel for the second straight year and for the fifth time overall. The two-time Daytona 500 winner drove Amelia in all four restrictor-plate races and the Duel last year, winning two points races as well as the Daytona qualifier.
Earnhardt held off 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano and rookie Ryan Blaney, who drove their Fords to second and third, respectively. Kevin Harvick finished fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin and Daytona 500 pole winner Chase Elliott.
With Blaney finishing highest in the first Duel among the four "open" drivers who had to race into the field, Michael McDowell earned a spot in the Daytona 500 based on his qualifying speed from last Thursday, the third fastest among the "open" drivers. Blaney was already locked into the field as the fastest qualifier among the "open" drivers.
"You all know what it means to be in the 500," McDowell said. I've been on the other side, too, where I've been loading up, too, and going home on a Thursday night. I definitely appreciate it when we make the races.
"It's definitely a big thing for our team, Circle Sport and Leavine Family Racing. We're going to have two cars in the Daytona 500, especially for a small team. To really start out the year well, it's very important. This is such a huge race."
Earnhardt got the lead on Lap 55 of 60, diving to the inside and pulling up beside Hamlin, who was leading at the time. Earnhardt stayed out front for the final five laps, bringing his total for the race to 43.
"Denny is such a great plate racer," Earnhardt said. "There are a lot of guys that are really good at it these days. I knew he was going to be real tough to get around. When he got the lead (during a sequence of green-flag pit stops), I didn’t know if we were going to be able to get around him. He’s got a great car and he’s real smart.
"For whatever reason, I was able to get to his quarter-panel, (and) he saw we had a pretty good run. I don’t know, I didn’t think I was going to clear him. We got away from him so he couldn’t side draft us, I guess. I was really surprised as anybody that we got by him. He’ll be tough on Sunday."
With Brian Scott spinning off Turn 4 and slamming into the inside wall on the final lap, Earnhardt crossed the finish line .183 seconds ahead of Logano, who also finished second to Hamlin in last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race.
The first Duel sets the inside lane for the Daytona 500. Hence, Earnhardt, Logano, Blaney, Harvick and Hamlin will line up third, fifth, seventh, ninth and 11th behind Elliott on Sunday.
Jamie McMurray, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Ty Dillon finished second through fifth in the second Duel and will line up behind Kyle Busch in the outside lane on Sunday, provided none of those drivers has to go to a backup car, and provided Elliott chooses the inside lane for the start of the race (the pole winner has lane choice).
With Matt DiBenedetto finishing highest among the "open" drivers in the second Duel, Robert Richardson Jr. earned the last starting spot in the Daytona 500 on speed, given that DiBenedetto already was locked into the field as the second fastest "open" qualifier during time trials.
"Two weeks ago I was at home working on my ranch, got a phone call from Lane Segerstrom from (sponsor) StalkIt, saying he was trying to put a deal together trying to run the Daytona 500," Richardson said. "This was two weeks ago. A lot of guys start preparing for this race as soon as the season ends from last year.
"I'm very, very honored to be a part of BK Racing, having another opportunity to run here at the Daytona 500. I've been in it once before, but this one is very, very special to me. My wife and I welcomed our brand new baby boy who was born in early December. Every bit of the earnings we get from this race are going to go into a college fund for him."