Thursday night’s Duels in Daytona Race Preview

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The field for the 63nd annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) will be set on Thursday night at the World Center of Speed. The annual Bluegreen Vacations Duels in Daytona (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN) will once again set the starting positions for 40 drivers for Sunday’s Great American Race. It will also send four drivers home too.

That’s a big storyline in itself.

Race Info

Coverage – 7 p.m. ET

Green Flag – 7:21 p.m. ET (Duel 1), approx. 8:45 p.m. ET (Duel 2)

Distances – 60 Laps/150 Miles

Duel 1 Starting Lineup

Duel 2 Starting Lineup

6 Drivers Going For 2 Spots

After a one year hiatus in 2018, the Duels will once again mean something again in terms of drivers racing their ways into the big show. For the 2018 race, we saw 40 drivers show up for 40 spots. There wasn’t much of an incentive to race hard then. Everyone would be racing in the ‘500. Why unnecessarily tear up some equipment?

In 2019, we had six open cars where two of which are already guaranteed spots into the ‘500 due to their qualifying speeds. Last year, seven open cars came to Daytona with two locking themselves in already due to their qualifying speed again. Both Justin Haley and Brendan Gaughan last year knew that they’re in the field but Reed Sorenson, Daniel Suarez and Chad Finchum in Duel 1 and Timmy Hill and JJ Yeley in Duel 2 had to race their ways in for the final two spots.

This year, we have more cars showing up now.

It’s a star list of open drivers with Austin Cindric, Ryan Preece, David Ragan, Ty Dillon, Noah Gragson, Kaz Grala, Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley showing up to Daytona this week and trying to race their ways in.

Both Preece and Ragan qualified their ways into the field on Wednesday night. That leaves six drivers for two spots. The top open finisher in the first Duel among Cindric, Dillon and Hill will take one spot with the top finisher among Grala, Smithley and Gragson will take the second spot in Duel 2. 

What Kind Of Racing Will We See?

The Duels have been pretty tame as of late. With 36 Chartered cars knowing that their spots into the big show on Sunday is secured, none of them are really willing to risk wrecking their Daytona 500 race car on Thursday night. So, most of the Duels are a high speed parade.

Then, for those wanting to race their ways in, most are underfunded teams and can’t afford much crash damage already. They don’t get in there and mix it up much anyways.

For a race that sees no one wanting to tear up a bunch of equipment, you get some tame racing. Heading into Thursday night, 38 of the 40 drivers know that they have a guaranteed starting spot in the field. While points are on the line, are they worth the risk?

That’s why I have a feeling a majority of the 60 Laps in each Duel will be single file again. Why push it early? You need to be there in the end after all.

I think the racing on Thursday will be less than desired.

Maybe we will get good finishes again like last year though.

2nd Duel Is Stacked

The first Duel has a few legitimate favorites in Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. But, the second Duel’s lineup is stacked. Below are the favorites for each. 

Duels Favorites For Race 1

Alex Bowman – This car finished runner-up last year as Bowman has had good speed in the Duels in the past himself. Does Bowman as the ‘500 pole sitter risk crashing his car to go for a win?

Aric Almirola – He’s a good superspeedway racer and starts second.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – He had a car capable of winning last year’s Duel but as the pole sitter for the Daytona 500, he elected to keep it somewhat conservative so he didn’t get caught up in a crash. Now, he rolls off third and in my mind, is the favorite. 

Denny Hamlin – You can never count him out. Hamlin, has won each of the last two Daytona 500’s and has two Duels wins overall since 2014 too including five top 10’s in that time frame. 

Joey Logano – He’s won a Duel in each of the last two years to go along with six straight top eight finishes. Furthermore, he’s actually finished in the top three in seven of the last eight years. He will start 11th in Duel 1. 

Kyle Larson – He has four top eight finishes in seven tries including a third place result just last  year. He has a better car now… He rolls off eighth. 

Duels Favorites For Race 2

William Byron – He won a Duel last year as well as the Coke Zero Sugar 400. Be a little wary though as most pole sitters for these races just ride conservatively to save their cars for Sunday’s race. 

Bubba Wallace – Worth the risk here. He was quickest in practice on Wednesday, qualified fourth overall Wednesday night and rolls off second on Thursday night. 

Kevin Harvick – He’s had just one Daytona 500 win over his career, but Harvick has done his best at Daytona in the Duels. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has six straight top six finishes in these qualifying races including a third place effort in 2017, a runner-up in 2018 and a win in 2019. 

Chase Elliott – He’s won two Duels and has scored a top eight finish in four of his five tries. 

Kurt Busch – Never say never. Busch, has six top fives in his last eight Duels including 15 top eight’s overall in 20 tries. He was third, third, fifth, fifth and eighth respectively in his last five tries. He starts seventh. 

Kyle Busch – Worth a risk here too. Three of his last four Duels have seen him finish outside of the top 10. But, he also has three top fives since 2015 too including a win in 2016. He won the Clash and now starts eighth on Thursday night. 

Ryan Blaney – He won a Duel in 2018 and has scored four top six results in six Duels starts. He starts ninth in Duel 2.  

Austin Dillon – He has four straight top 10 finishes in the Duels and five in eight starts. He starts fourth in Duel 2. 

Starting Position Matters For Daytona 500 So Scoring Points Thursday Will Actually Help

Normally, starting positions for a superspeedway race is just a number. When cars are running in a pack, inches from each other while also drafting with one another, why does it matter where you come from? Well, what if I told you that eight of the last nine years have seen the Daytona 500 winner come from the first 7 Rows? In fact, its actually happened 10 times since 2008 at that.

That means you need to finish in the top seven of your Duel on Thursday night in order to have the best chance of winning on Sunday evening.

The weird thing is, since 2001, we haven’t actually seen the Daytona 500 winner come from the front row though. We’ve also only had one pole winner in the last 29 Duels win the races on Thursday night as well. They pole winner is 0-for-20 in the Daytona 500 and we’ve only seen 1 pole winner to win the Clash in the last 30 years on the oval.

So, being on the pole may not lead to success for the Daytona 500 nor the Duels, but a top seven finish in the Duel race itself might though.

But, starting spots in the Duel actually matter too. The last 10 Duel winners started in the top eight. We’ve had seven straight Duels see the race winner come from third on back though. In fact, 20 of the last 24 Duels have seen the winner come from Row 2 on back. Furthermore, 13 of the last 14 have started in the top 10 including 11 straight from the top 4 Rows.

There’s a good shot the winner for both races comes from the top 10 on Thursday night but neither front row starter wins it. Will that enhance the racing any?

Hendrick/JGR/Penske Cars The Favorites To Beat

Since 2005, Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske cars have combined to win all but 17 races during Daytona Speedweeks. Furthermore, they’ve won all but five races since 2013 at Daytona in February. They’re clearly the ones to beat on Thursday night.

Between the trio of teams, they’ve won 14 of the last 15 Duels in Daytona. Hendrick has six trips to victory lane in this race since 2013, Gibbs five and Penske three.

HMS has a record 16 total Duel victories, 11 since 2005 and at least one Duel win in five of the last six years. They have to be the favorites to take a win. So does Penske. They’ve got five Duel wins overall, three of which since 2013, but all three coming in the last three years actually. Ryan Blaney won for Penske in 2018 and Joey Logano in each of the last two years himself. Brad Keselowski has actually never won a Duel before.

JGR will have a shot as well with Denny Hamlin landing in victory lane twice since 2014 and Kyle Busch as many times since 2013. But, they’ve not won a Duel since 2017 though as its being all Penske/HMS since. Kevin Harivck in 2019 is the lone exception. JGR won five Duels in a five year span but none since.

This is a HMS/JGR/Penske showcase as of late though.

Expect Quick Races

The two Duels should wrap up fairly quickly. 9 of the last 10 Duels have run to completion in less than one hour including 14 of the last 18. In fact, the longest Duel since 2009 lasted 1-hour, 8-minutes and 25-seconds.

The two in 2019 lasted 50-minutes and 38-seconds (Duel 1) and 46-minutes and 36-seconds (Duel 2). The two last year were completed in 54-minutes and 9-seconds (Duel 1) and 52-minutes and 38-seconds (Duel 2).

Points Still On The Line

Once again 20 drivers will leave Thursday night’s races in Daytona with points in their pockets. Like in the last few years, the top 10 in each race will score points once the checkered flag drops. It gives an extra incentive to race hard on Thursday night and to just not ride around in the back.

The winner of each Duel gets 10 points. The second place finisher in each will get nine. The third place driver will receive eight, fourth will get seventh and so on down to one point for 10th place.

Will drivers elect to go after the points in the end or just play it conservative and make sure their cars get to the Daytona 500 in once piece? The past has seen them not risk the car for points. Will Thursday go the same?

Odd Stat

The last Duel winner to win the Daytona 500 was Matt Kenseth in 2012. He’s the only one to do it in the last 16 years. In fact, its only been done just five times since 1996.

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