Top storylines for Thursday night’s Duels in Daytona with starting lineups for each

The time is here. The field for the 64th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) will once again set on Thursday night at the World Center of Speed. The annual Bluegreen Vacations Duels in Daytona (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN) will set the starting positions for 40 drivers with hopes and aspirations of winning Sunday’s Great American Race. The twin 150’s will also send two drivers home too.

That’s a big storyline in itself.

Race Info

Coverage – 7 p.m. ET

Green Flag – 7:20 p.m. ET (Duel 1), approx. 8:45 p.m. ET (Duel 2)

Distances – 60 Laps/150 Miles

Duel 1 Starting Lineup

Row 1: Kyle Larson, William Byron

Row 2: Chase Elliott, Ross Chastain

Row 3: Daniel Suarez, Daniel Hemric

Row 4: Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick

Row 5: Brad Keselowski, Chase Briscoe

Row 6: Austin Cindric R, Erik Jones

Row 7: Kurt Busch, Justin Haley

Row 8: Cole Custer, Todd Gilliland R

Row 9: Noah Gragson, Landon Cassill

Row 10: Kaz Grala, BJ McLeod

Row 11: JJ Yeley

Duel 2 Starting Lineup

Row 1: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola

Row 2: Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin

Row 3: Harrison Burton R, Joey Logano

Row 4: Christopher Bell, Bubba Wallace

Row 5: Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon

Row 6: Michael McDowell, Ty Dillon

Row 7: Kevin Harvick, Chris Buescher

Row 8: Corey LaJoie, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Row 9: Cody Ware, Jacques Villeneuve R

Row 10: Greg Biffle, Ryan Preece

Row 11: Timmy Hill

Hendrick/JGR/Penske Cars The Favorites To Beat

Since 2005, Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske cars have combined to win all but 20 races during Daytona Speedweeks. Furthermore, they’ve won all but eight races since 2013 at Daytona in February. They’re clearly the ones to beat on Thursday night despite being 0-for-3 last year.

Between the trio of teams, they’ve won 13 of the last 16 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 seven 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 four years actually. Ryan Blaney won for Penske in 2018 and Joey Logano in each of the two years after. Brad Keselowski has actually never won a Duel before with them.

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, Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon last year are the lone exceptions. JGR won five Duels in a five year span but none since.

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

The top three starting spots in the first Duel are HMS with them and two of the three Penske’s (Blaney, Cindric) in that Duel.

The second Duel consists of all four JGR drivers, the other Penske (Logano) and other HMS driver (Bowman).

Drivers To Watch

Duel 1: Win Is Wide Open

Kyle Larson – He’s never had a top 5 in 26 career points paying superspeedway starts but does have six top eight finishes in eight Duel tries including a third place result in 2020. The only question for him is, with him earning the pole on Sunday, how hard does he race?

William Byron – He won a Duel in 2020 as well as the Coke Zero Sugar 400 later that year. He had a great car in last year’s Duels in leading 34 laps before getting caught up in a crash. Byron, starts second in this Duel alongside of Larson.

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

Ryan Blaney – He won a Duel in 2018 and has scored five top six results in seven Duels starts.

Kurt Busch – Never say never. Busch, has six top fives in his last nine Duels including 16 top nine finishes overall in 21 tries. He was third, third, fifth, fifth, eighth and ninth respectively in his last six tries.

Duel 2: Toughest Of The 2 Duels

Denny Hamlin – You can never count him out. Hamlin, has won 3 total Daytona 500’s, 2 of which coming in the last 3 years and has two Duels wins overall since 2014 too including five top 10’s in that time frame. He starts fourth.

Joey Logano – He’s won a Duel in 2 of the last 3 years to go along with seven straight top eight finishes. Furthermore, he’s actually finished in the top four in eight of the last nine years at that. Logano, starts sixth.

Aric Almirola – He’s a good superspeedway racer and won last year’s race. Worth a look as Almriola rolls off second.

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

Kyle Busch – Three of his last five Duels have seen him finish outside of the top 10. But, he also has six top fives since 2015 too including a win in 2016 and fourth last year.

Bubba Wallace – Worth the risk here. He was runner-up in last year’s Duels.

Austin Dillon – He has five straight top 10 finishes in the Duels including a win last year and six in nine starts.

4 Drivers Going For 2 Spots

After a one year hiatus in 2018, the Duels will once again mean something in terms of drivers racing their ways into the big show. For that 2018 race, we saw 40 drivers show up for the 40 allotted 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 the process?

In 2019, we had six open cars. 2020, saw seven open cars. Last year, we had more cars showing up with 44 entries for 40 spots. This year though, it’s back down to 42 cars for 40 spots. Four will make it, two will go home.

The open teams are Beard Motorsports (Noah Gragson), The Money Team (Kaz Grala), MBM Motorsports (Timmy Hill, JJ Yeley), Team Hezeberg (Jacques Villeneuve) and NY Racing Team (Greg Biffle).

2 of those 6 though (Gragson, Villeneuve) already know that they have spots into the field via their qualifying runs on Wednesday night. If they don’t race their ways in, they could always fall back on their speed.

That leaves four drivers for two spots Thursday night. The two MBM cars have to race their ways in via being the slowest in qualifying. That’s their only path in.

What Kind Of Racing Will We See?

This has been one of the larger topics of conversation outside of the Next Gen car. How will Thursday night’s Duels look?

Honestly, even with more on the line, the Duels have been pretty tame as of late and I’m wondering what we’ll see out of the twin races under the lights on Thursday. With 36 Chartered cars knowing that they have their spots into the big show on Sunday secured, are any of them truly willing to risk wrecking their Daytona 500 race car on Thursday night especially with a parts/car shortage this season.

What’s the risk vs. reward and does the risk outweigh the reward here?

In the not so distant past, simulations have led to teams pretty much already knowing what their car has in it for the ‘500. Why wad up a race car when you already pretty much know what you have? With simulations being enhanced and not really very many big swings to the racing package on superspeedway’s from year to year, most teams knew what they wanted out of their race cars come February.

Now though, they don’t have the luxury. Yes, there’s been a couple of different test sessions at Daytona with this Next Gen model, but none of which could truly simulate what exactly this car is going to feel like in a pack of 40 of their closest peers for the biggest race of the season.

Without the Busch Clash on the oval for a second straight year and only having two 50-minute practice sessions on Tuesday evening as the only on track time before the Duels, I on one hand expect the Duels to ramp up in nature.

I say that because at some point, you have to run in a pack to see how this car feels in the draft. There’s not really any real time simulation programs that you can put this car through yet because there’s not any data for it. The only true test right now is physical on track time and for another year, there’s not much of it being allotted.

We didn’t see any big groups drafting in practice on Tuesday and qualifying on Wednesday is single car runs. We still at this moment don’t know how these cars are going to react in a pack of 20+ cars.

Can you tandem? If so, for how long? Does the car draft well? Is it worse? What lanes can you put yourself in? Does the leader have an advantage again or are the runs still too big to do much blocking?

We have no answers for those yet.

“The little bit of drafting that has gone on, there’s just not really been enough – at least of what I’ve been a part of – there hasn’t been enough cars to really create the energy, the things that are real and that you’re going to see on Sunday,” Chase Elliott said. “I have even often – in my experience – have noticed that in the Duels, there’s really not enough cars in that event and enough sense of urgency in the runs that happen on Thursday night as they do on Sunday. Until we get in that environment, it’s really honestly hard to say.”

Last year and even in recent memory at that, drivers could get away with running on their own in practice or even with their teammates during those same practice sessions. It was just a few short runs to check ride heights and to confirm what you really already knew the park it until the ‘500. No need to risk anything in the Duels either.

You just can’t do that now. There’s just far too many unknowns.

Putting yourself in sketchy situations in the Duels will further help your chances at a Daytona 500 crown on Sunday afternoon.

The flipside of this all is, how many situations do you honestly want put yourself in before the Daytona 500? Parts are still limited, so you really can’t afford much crash damage prior to the big race either. That’s the flip side of the coin here and one that could greatly affect how both races look.

Some teams are only taking one car down to Speedweeks. Other teams have two total backup cars for their entire organization. They’re using a community back up car per say just in case someone tears a car up during practice or the Duels.

See, instead of Kevin Harvick as an example bringing a primary and backup car down to Florida this year, they’re bringing just one car. Same for his teammates. Should any of them need a backup, they’ll use maybe of of their teammates cars back at the shop.

“We have a couple for the four of us.  It is a tough thing,” Ryan Blaney said. “Our inventory is not very big currently – no one’s is. It’s been difficult to get parts and pieces, honestly, for the teams to kind of put full things together.

“We used to come down here with one or two backups for each team just in case things happened and now we’re sitting on a couple for your whole organization, so that’s been difficult.  You have to have that in the back of your head.  From practice last night, ‘OK, how hard do I push my teammate to see what my car will do and what his car will do without possibly wrecking him?’

“And the Duels tomorrow night it’s gonna be the same thing.  I feel like guys are gonna be pretty smart on how they race, you would hope so because everyone is kind of sitting in the same boat.  But, at the same time, you have teams that need to get in the 500 too that are gonna be racing pretty hard at the end of the Duels to try to get in, so you just have to be aware and observant, but you don’t ever want to wreck your 500 car, let alone when we don’t have many things to spare.”

In saying that, Daytona also won’t require the winning car to be put in Daytona USA afterwards. Due to the limited car supply, teams can’t afford to part ways with a car for an entire year as a result of winning Sunday’s Great American Race. So, for the first time in a long time, Daytona and NASCAR will allow the race winning team to keep the car instead.

So, with that said, due to the limited supply and teams not having full inventories yet, is it worth the risk to do much drafting in the Duels?

“I feel like we’re in a spot where we need to race this car in the 500,” Erik Jones said. “I think most people are in that spot, but I think we’re a little more than some with the parts and pieces and the cars we have lined up going forward from here onto Fontana and on from there.

“We’ll have to race a little bit in the (Duels). From what we’ve talked about, we’re not too concerned where we start in the 500. You can race your way to the front in the 500 if you need to, especially with seeing how these cars draft, the way you can move through the field and things you can do to pick up a lot of speed. I honestly don’t know totally what my approach is going to be yet. It’s going to depend on where we start and where we qualify. I think we’re going to be timid for sure.”

Logic sates that you should run in the draft and put yourself in precarious positions in the Duels if you want a chance for the big prize on Sunday, but it’s also not required. You should try and push the limits to get your car dialed in for Sunday’s race, but logic also states that you just can’t afford to tear up your equipment in the process either.

With a new car and only two practice sessions that were available prior to Thursday night’s twins, no one truly knows what to expect in their race cars in a pack but you also can’t afford to wreck it either by pushing it.

Gone are the days of having 3+ cars down in Daytona for Speedweeks. You’d have a Clash car, a primary Daytona 500 car and if your Clash car wasn’t your backup, a true backup car. If you got in a crash in 2 of the 3 cars, you could run a hauler up to the shop in North Carolina to swap out for a different car and head back south to Daytona Beach.

There’s not enough spare parts to do that right now.

What about drafting with manufacturers? What happens if a bunch of Chevy’s or Toyota’s or Ford’s get wadded up? Are there enough parts to fix them all?

So, part of me thinks the 36 chartered teams, especially those locked onto the Daytona 500 front row, may just take these two races and log laps. Another part of me thinks some may take advantage of that situation and take the free points and a potential win.

“I can’t speak for the whole field on what they are thinking but I don’t see myself racing any different in the Duel than I will in the 500,” Joey Logano said. “I am planning to go race. I think as soon as you get scared of crashing and those type of things you are never going to win. So, I am going to go race and if we crash, so be it, we will figure it out. I feel like going out there to race to win and try to get those points. There are still points out there to try to get. It is one step at a time. The Duels are typically a little more tame and it is usually not that crazy. But there have been crashes in them before and I think with the new car there could — like we said with the round bumper it could cause more crashes. At the same time you may have some drivers and teams that are telling them to chill out because we don’t have a whole bunch of inventory. I don’t really know exactly how the Duels are going to look. All I can control is what I am going to do.”

Then, for those wanting to race their ways in, most are underfunded teams. They can’t afford much crash damage already. How much risk are they willing to take?

I expect the two open cars that qualified their ways in on Wednesday night to take it easy but for the other four, you kind of have to be aggressive. Why take care of your car when you may not even be able to use it in the big show on Sunday if you’re on the sidelines?

For a race that sees no one wanting to tear up a bunch of equipment ahead of the big prize this weekend, you combine all of these factors and get some likely tame racing for longer spurts.

“Yeah, well that is the race,” Elliott said on making Thursday night’s race a good show for the fans. “That’s part of racing somedays and you either like that or you don’t. I hate to be that way; but at the end of the day, we’re going to do what we feel like is going to give us the best shot to win at the end of the day on Sunday. What that looks like sometimes might not be what people want to see all the time. But that’s just the way it unfolds.

“Would I love to mix it up for 500 miles? Absolutely I would love to put on the most exciting thing ever for four hours. But I also want to win; I want to win worse than I want to just make sure it’s super entertaining. That keeps integrity in our sport and as long as we have integrity in what we do and we all want to win, then I think the fans and the people are going to appreciate it. I think that’s an important piece; just keeping the integrity in what we have going on and making sure everybody still wants to win and make all of those right decisions to put themselves in the right position to do that.”

Still, even as the last few years have shown, the races have been tame in nature for 98% of them but the final few laps and finishes have been phenomenal and chaotic.

That’s another factor too. You want to know how to position your car in the end for a win and what better practice than Thursday night.

“Obviously, the ones that have to race their way in got to do what they got to do,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr.. “I think a lot of them aren’t worried about going to the next few races, so they have one agenda, which is part of what makes the Duals cool. You have people with different agendas. You have the people who qualified on the front row; not trying to tear their car up. You have the ones trying to make it. And I feel like you have a lot of us who don’t want to go to a backup car, but you still want to learn and get as many points as you can. I feel like we’re in a good position as a race team. As soon as allotments were able to be filled, we feel like we’re in a good position as a race team with parts and pieces relative to some of the other teams. You don’t want to put yourself in a bind either. I feel like it’s always exciting for a little bit and it kind of fizzles out and gets more exciting again at the end when the checkered flag is coming out.”

One agenda in a front row starter (Alex Bowman) says that by being quick in qualifying usually leads to a less than stellar handling car in the Duels.

“Yeah, I mean, I think kind of with our agenda, obviously we’re all in on qualifying, and I think that translates ‑‑ that typically translates to a car that’s not going to drive amazing in the Duels,” he said. “Just trying to protect the race car the best we can and put ourselves in the best position we can be for the 500. Obviously it is a race and it does pay points, but trying to protect the race car and be as smart as we can be.”

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 10 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 30 Duels win the races on Thursday night as well. The pole winner is 0-for-21 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 13 Duel winners started in the top eight. In fact, 15 of the last 16 came from a top 10 starting spot in the Duel.

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

Expect Quick Races

The two Duels should wrap up fairly quickly. 11 of the last 12 Duels have run to completion in less than one hour including 16 of the last 20. 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 in 2020 were completed in 54-minutes and 9-seconds (Duel 1) and 52-minutes and 38-seconds (Duel 2).

Last year, it was 46-minues and 53-seconds (Duel 1) and 59-minutes and 47-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 but is it enough this year?

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?

Duels at Daytona Betting Trends

  • Over the last 31 Duels, just once has a pole winner that race won.
  • 8 of the last 9 straight Duels have been won from the 3rd starting spot on back.
  • Last 13 Duels have been won from a starting spot in the top 4 Rows.
  • 15 of the last 16 Duels in fact have been won from a top 10 starting spot.
  • 21 of the last 26 Duels have been won from Row 2 on back

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.

Of Note

The winner of the second Duel has led very minimal laps lately. Austin Dillon led two total laps in last year’s second Duel but was victorious. William Byron one upped him with three laps led in his Duels win in 2020. Joey Logano only led the final lap in the second race of 2019. Denny Hamlin led only four laps in the 2017 race.

That four of the last five years that the winner of the second Duel led four or fewer laps but still reached victory lane.

Meanwhile, the first Duel was the opposite. Aric Almirola led 52 of 60 laps (86.70%) in last year’s race. Logano led 19 of 60 (31.70%) in 2020’s. Kevin Harvick prior led 44 of 60 laps (73.30%) in his win a year prior. Chase Elliott led 25 of 60 (41.70%) in his 2017. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 43 of 60 (71.70%) in 2016.

That’s five of the last six first Duels to where the winner led at the very minimum 19 laps.

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