Almirola wins the 1st Duel at Daytona, full recap with some takeaways

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup Finals last Fall. The Tampa Bay Rays made it all the way to the World Series right after. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl last Sunday. Well, Tampa’s Aric Almirola just won the first Duel at the Daytona International Speedway.

Almirola, took over the lead for the final time after the first and only round of pit stops on Lap 37 and never looked back in leading the final 24 laps en route to his first career Duel victory. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver narrowly held off the pack though as Joey Logano made a final charge at the victory in Turn 3 on the final lap.

Logano was there but Almirola use a great side draft at the exit of the fourth turn to beat Christopher Bell by just .041-seconds in his No. 10 Ford.

“I knew Joey was going to come with a run,” said Almirola. “I knew somebody was going to come with a run, I figured it would be Joey. He’s really good at that stuff. I saw him back up a couple times just to kind of see and gauge what he had, where his run was going to come.

“I knew he would come with a run probably at one to go. It’s too risky to do it much earlier than that. I just knew I wanted to try to move around before he started his run to try and mess up his run or get him off on thinking which way he was going to go.

“I was able to do that to where I could at least get him going in a direction that I knew he was going to go opposite of me rather than me guessing where he was going to go.

“I felt like I did everything I could. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop his run. I wasn’t going to be able to just blatantly block him. That would probably cause a wreck. Our race car was way too fast. I wasn’t going to concede the win, but I certainly wasn’t going to get my really fast Smithfield Ford Mustang tore up trying to be overly defensive.

“I made a move one way, then I blocked the top. He got to my inside. I was able to just side draft him and pull him back to where he couldn’t clear me.”

Almirola, looks like a legitimate Daytona 500 contender as he also qualified third overall on Wednesday night.

“I would say it’s every bit comparable,” Almirola said on his car compared to the past. “I feel like the car we had down here my first year with SHR in 2018 was extremely fast and capable of winning. I led the last three quarters of the lap that I needed to lead to win the Daytona 500. I just didn’t lead the last 25% of the lap.

“Yeah, I’ve been down here with extremely fast Ford Mustangs every time I’ve come with Stewart-Haas Racing. They have an incredible program from top to bottom. Their speedway stuff has notoriously been very good. Seems like every time we show up for the Daytona 500 we have a car capable of winning.”

He said his confidence level is high now after winning his Duel, especially after as he said in making a statement by leading 52 of the 60 laps run.

“It just gives us a lot of confidence,” he said. “We know we have a fast car. It drives really well. It handles well. It pushes. It gets pushed well. All of the things that are important to be successful at Daytona. Gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence going into the race on Sunday.

“But there’s so much that can happen in this race that’s out of your control. I feel like so far we’ve done everything that we can do to maximize what we’re in control of. That’s all we can do. We’ll do the same thing on Sunday.

“We’ll execute, we’ll have a really fast race car obviously after seeing how it performed tonight, then we just got to do all the little things right on Sunday. We’ve got to execute on pit road, we’ve got to have the right strategy, no mistakes, then hope that you don’t get caught up in somebody else’s mess.

“It’s a big statement, it really is. That is hard to do at these speedway races. Most oftentimes when you’re the leader, you are the sitting duck. It’s hard to lead that many laps and win the race. Usually when you lead that many laps, everybody behind you figuring out how to mount a charge, and you end up losing the race in the last lap.

“I was glad that we were able to defend that run and make sure that we got our Smithfield Ford Mustang in Victory Lane, which is where it deserved to be after putting on that kind of dominant performance.”

For the second place finisher in Bell, he had a solid night and ran up front for most of it. He had drafting help from Denny Hamlin but Hamlin ran out of gas on the final lap. Bell, nearly clinched his first NASCAR Cup Series win but came up just short.

Ryan Newman was third in his No. 6 Ford while Logano finished fourth in his No. 22 Ford.

Preece Races His Way In, Shakes Up Open Field, How Cindric Ends Up In The Daytona 500

The move of the night came on that last lap in the tri-oval when Logano moved to block Ty Dillon’s momentum which stalled him out and allowed Ryan Preece to move from eighth to fifth and take the first open spot.

How this matters is that Preece was the quickest open qualifier among the eight during Wednesday night’s qualifying. That guaranteed him a spot into the Daytona 500 by virtue of that. But, if he still raced his way in during the Duels, then the third fastest open qualifier then would transfer.

That driver?

Austin Cindric.

Cindric, ran up front early but was in the wrong line. The Ford’s were all running on the low lane and he was left high and dry as the pack settled down. Cindric, fell back which gave way to Dillon to then take over that transfer spot.

Unfortunately for Dillon, he was in the wrong line shortly thereafter as he went from fifth to the back of the lead pack when the cars moved back up to the top of the banking and Dillon didn’t have any room to join.

That was just before the first pit stops.

Cindric, opened the door back up when he was caught speeding on hit pit stop. He was speeding by just .44 mph in the final zone. He’d end up having to come back down pit lane on Lap 35 for a pass through penalty. He’d obviously lose the draft as a result of that and with 15 laps remaining, he’d fall a lap down.

It was shaping up now for a battle between Ty Dillon and Timmy Hill for that transfer spot. After that pit sequence, Dillon was fifth. He remained up front the rest of the way, but Preece came out of no where and earned that open spot and by doing so, moved Cindric, despite a 16th place finish compared to Dillon’s sixth, back in.

Bowman’s Bad Night

I didn’t expect Alex Bowman to necessarily contend for a victory in Thursday night’s Duels. He qualified on the pole for the Daytona 500 and typically the drivers with a front row starting spot for the Great American Race take it easy in their respective Duel.

I mean think about it, why risk tearing up your car and having to go to a backup? The primary car clearly has some speed in it, so why damage it in a crash?

We’ve only had one pole winner reach victory lane in the last 29 Duels entering this year’s Speedweeks. The last seven Duels also saw the winner come from third on back. So, for Bowman to finish 20th, it’s not too shocking.

What was shocking, was that he was four laps down. He battled issues all race. His No. 48 Chevrolet developed a vibration early and pit off sequence to see if it was an engine related issue. After looking at everything on pit road, they determined that it maybe wasn’t the engine after all, so back out he went. Unfortunately, the vibration never went away as they head into practice on Saturday night without knowing what the actual problem is with his car.

Ford’s Look Stout

The Ford drivers looked strong in qualifying on Wednesday. The ones in the first Duel looked even better with taking 3 of the top 4 finishing spots and leading 52 of the 60 laps.

“I do,” Almirola said on if he feels like the Ford camp are legitimate contenders. “I know that everybody in the Ford camp has been working incredibly hard to get back to Victory Lane at these speedway races, particularly here for the Daytona 500. It’s a really big deal. It’s a place that we all cherish coming to and winning at. It means a really big deal when you can put your car and your manufacturer in Victory Lane for the Daytona 500.

“I know they’ve been working really hard to do that, giving us every resource we need at Stewart-Haas Racing to make sure we bring fast racecars.

“Then on the engine side, Doug Yates, man, that guy loves speedway racing. He builds great engines for everything we do, but he takes a lot of pride in coming to Daytona and trying to get that trophy.

“I’ve been to Victory Lane here with Doug before in the summer race in July. To see the emotion on his face, he was in Victory Lane with his wife and kids that day with us. Daytona is just a special place. It means a lot to everybody. It’s a really big deal for me. But I know it means a tremendous amount to Doug Yates. He’s been working really hard, and everybody at Roush-Yates engines, to make sure we have what we need to try to win on Sunday.”

Bell Looks Comfortable

Christopher Bell is really an underrated racer on superspeedway’s. In Trucks, his finishes were 16th, sixth, eighth and second respectively. In NXS competition, he was 39th, 12th, third, sixth and third respectively. Last year in Cup though, he was 21st, 29th, 13th and 39th respectively.

So far this Speedweeks, Bell was second in his Duel and looked really stout all night. He was aggressive in his No. 20 Toyota and is a true sleeper to watch on Sunday.

Top Stats

  • The last Duel winner to win the Daytona 500 was Matt Kenseth in 2012. He’s the only one to do so over the last 16 years in fact. Furthermore, it’s only happened just five times since 1996.
  • This was the first Duel in the last 8 races that the winner came from the front row.
  • It was the 11th straight Duel though that the race winner came from the top 8 at the start.
  • 14 of the last 15 Duels have now seen the winner come from the top 10 too
  • Almirola is just the 2nd driver to win a Duel with SHR. Kevin Harvick (2019) is the other.
  • This was just the sixth race since 2013 that the winner in a Cup race at Daytona wasn’t a Hendrick, JGR or Penske driver.
  • This was just the second time in the last 16 Duels that someone other than HMS, JGR or Penske won. both are SHR too.


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