Chase Elliott had an impressive and very fast NAPA Chevrolet, steering high and low and holding back all challengers to win the first NASCAR Can-Am Duel 150 at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night.
Right on Elliott’s rear bumper were Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth; he distanced himself by only 0.156-of a second at the finish. The Dawsonville, Ga. driver led 24 of the 60 laps in the qualifying race after winning Sunday’s pole position, and is now in line for a clean sweep with a win in the 500.
“It was definitely a great way to start the season,” said Elliott, driving in his second year for Hendrick Motorsports. “As I said on TV, I know it’s just a Duel win. You obviously wish it was Sunday and counted towards the Playoffs, but it still means a lot to me. Means a lot to our team. Had some big steam under the hood, which is a huge factor in keeping us out front. So glad we were able to race and stay aggressive and battle those guys. Hopefully we can dial it in just a little better for Sunday and give it another shot.”
After clinching the pole last Sunday, this was Elliott’s first victory in NASCAR’s Cup series. It came 32 years after his dad, Bill, won his first qualifying race and, three days later, his first of his two Daytona 500s in 1985.
When asked about his chances in just his second time behind the wheel at the Daytona 500, the confident Elliott answered directly: “Oh, I definitely think we have a shot at it. I mean, if I did not feel that way, like I always say, I’d stay home. I feel like we have a shot on Sunday. I feel like we had a shot before we got down here.
“Tonight’s result hasn’t changed my opinion on that. I’m looking forward to it, obviously. You love to get that qualifying spot on Sunday, but we really earned it tonight, to start on the front row, which is even better. Just a great way to start the season and it’s cool for our team. We’re excited for Sunday and getting the season going.”
The only frightening moment of the race was when Reed Sorenson was clipped by Cory LaJoie, sending him hard into the inside retaining wall of the front stretch. Fortunately, he was checked out and released from the infield care center.
Denny Hamlin Slingshots Past Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in Second Can-Am Duel
Unlike in the first Can-Am Duel, Denny Hamlin showed in the second event why he’s the defending Daytona 500 champion. He rallied the high line to pass the longtime leader of the race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in his return to competition, to win the second race of the night.
Hamlin gave thanks to Austin Dillon for falling in behind him and giving him a great push going into turn three on lap 58 of 60 to drive around Earnhardt, bringing along Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, A.J. Allmendinger and Dillon in his speedy draft. Earnhardt slipped back to sixth at the finish.
Hamlin had to overcome a pit road penalty for rolling through too many pits on exit on lap 27, after in an attempt to try and get a straighter line out of his pits to be quicker. NASCAR officials spotted the infraction, sending him to the rear of the field.
“We definitely had a strong car, but so much of that race was single file,” said Hamlin, who earlier in the day announced a three-year extension of the driving contract with Joe Gibbs Racing and sponsor FedEx. “So it was really tough to show what we could do in the pack once we got two and three wide. But it looked like our car could make some really good moves and got a great push from the 3 (Dillon) there at the end.
“It looked like our cars worked really, really well together there, so we’ll keep that in mind when I need somebody to draft with in the 500. Great job by the team. The car was great.”
Earnhardt led 53 laps as the rabbit, with the hounds chasing him in close quarters, when Hamlin received a jolt from Dillon at the right time with two laps to go. The rest is history, with Busch and Bowyer in tow, chasing Hamlin to the finish line.
“I don’t know what I could have done differently to defend that,” said Earnhardt, who was denied a third straight Duel victory. “Once I heard the No. 3 (Dillon) was clear on the outside, I knew they were going to have a big run. Denny is so smart, and he knows what he’s doing out there. He’s one of the better plate racers out there.
“Any which way I would have went, he was going to go the other way and probably get by me. I was hoping Austin might push us a little bit since he drives a Chevy, but I don’t know if I would have done it any different than he did, either.”
The only mishap of the second qualifying race happened on lap 48, when David Ragan drafted up to the lead pack, clipping Jimmie Johnson’s right rear. This caused him to careen into the Wood Brothers driver Ryan Blaney, causing both drivers to have flat tires heading to the pits.
There will be a couple of more practices for the Monster Energy Cup series on Friday and Saturday, leading up to the 59th annual Daytona 500 airing coverage on FOX Network on Sunday, Feb. 26, starting at 1 p.m. EST.