DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The time is here. The field for the 65th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN) will once again 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 determine 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.
From 1972 to 2004 the Duels were scheduled for 50 laps each and during that time frame eight of the Duel events had a driver lead 100% of the laps from flag-to-flag – NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip was the first to accomplish the feat in 1988; he was later joined by Dale Earnhardt (1991,1998), Davey Allison (1991), Ernie Irvan (1996), Bill Elliott (2000), Ricky Rudd (2000) and Jeff Gordon (2002). The race was moved to 60 laps in 2005 and ever since the most a driver has led in a Duel event is 86.7% (52 laps of the scheduled 60) by Aric Almirola in 2021.
A total of 47 different drivers have won the NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duels, led by NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt with 12 Duel victories – seven more than the next competitor.
A total of 12 active drivers have won at least one of the Duel events at Daytona, led by Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin (2008, 2014, 2017) and Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch (2009, 2013, 2016) with three victories each. The other 10 active Duel winners are Chase Elliott (2017, 2018), Joey Logano (2019, 2020), Kevin Harvick (2013, 2019), Jimmie Johnson (2010, 2015), Ryan Blaney (2018), William Byron (2020), Austin Dillon (2021), Aric Almirola (2021), Brad Keselowski (2022) and Chris Buescher (2022).
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: Alex Bowman, William Byron
Row 2: Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney
Row 3: Harrison Burton, Bubba Wallace
Row 4: Chris Buescher, Ross Chastain
Row 5: Kevin Harvick, Ty Gibbs R
Row 6: Christopher Bell, Jimmie Johnson
Row 7: Michael McDowell, Erik Jones
Row 8: Zane Smith R, AJ Allmendinger
Row 9: Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 10: Cody Ware, Ty Dillon
Row 11: Chandler Smith R
Duel 2 Starting Lineup
Row 1: Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola
Row 2: Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric
Row 3: Kyle Busch, Daniel Suarez
Row 4: Chase Elliott, Ryan Preece
Row 5: Brad Keselowski, Tyler Reddick
Row 6: Martin Truex Jr., Travis Pastrana
Row 7: Denny Hamlin, Noah Gragson
Row 8: Justin Haley, Austin Hill R
Row 9: Todd Gilliland, BJ McLeod
Row 10: Riley Herbst R, Corey LaJoie
Row 11: Conor Daly
Can HMS/JGR/Penske Find Victory Lane Again
Coming into 2021’s Speedweeks’, Hendrick, Gibbs and Penske cars had combined to win all but 17 races during Daytona Speedweeks since 2005. Furthermore, they’ve won all but five races since 2013 at Daytona in February.
Between the trio of teams, they had 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 also has a record 16 total Duel victories, 11 since 2005 and at least one Duel win in five of the last six years entering 2021. They were the favorites to take a win with the pole in both races the last two years.
So was Penske. They’ve got five Duel wins overall, three of which since 2013, but all three coming in the last three years consecutively entering ’21. Ryan Blaney won for Penske in 2018 and Joey Logano in 2019 and again in 2020. Brad Keselowski had actually never won a Duel before with Penske.
JGR had 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 it was becoming an all Penske/HMS show since.
Then came the last two years. SHR/RCR each won in 2021 while RFK Racing swept 2022. Does that change on Thursday night?
The two four spots in Duel 1 belong to HMS-Penske drivers. Hendrick on the front row (Bowman, Byron) and Penske on Row 2 (Logano, Blaney). Factor in the alliance team with Harrison Burton and you can see that Penske may have a leg up on the opening Duel and get back to victory lane.
The second Duel has the other two HMS drivers but just one Penske (Cindric). There are a pair of SHR drivers in the top three as well as a third SHR driver in Ryan Preece starting in 8th.
Drivers To Watch
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 the 2021 year’s Duels in leading 34 laps before getting caught up in a crash. He only finished 12th last year.
Ryan Blaney – He won a Duel in 2018 and has scored six top six results in eight Duels starts including a third place finish last year.
Joey Logano – He’s won a Duel in 2 of the last 4 years to go along with eight straight top 10 finishes. Furthermore, he’s actually finished in the top four in eight of the last 10 years at that.
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 top six finishes in his last eight tries in these qualifying races including a third-place effort in 2017, a runner-up in 2018, a win in 2019 and third in 2021.
Bubba Wallace – Worth the risk here. He was runner-up in 2021’s Duels and seventh last year.
Christopher Bell – 2nd in the 2021 Duels and 5th last year. While he’s only finished 21st and 13th here in 2020, 16th and 32nd in 2021 and 34th and 36th respectively last year in points paying races, he’s good in the Duels.
Chris Buescher – He won last year’s second Duel so worth a look.
Michael McDowell – 9th in 2021 and 2nd last year.
Austin Dillon – He has five top 10 finishes in his last six Duels including a win in 2021.
Aric Almirola – He’s a good superspeedway racer and won the 2021 Duel. He starts on the front row and has a pair of teammates in this race with him.
Chase Briscoe – Finished 4th in last year’s Duel as well as third in the Daytona 500. He starts third on Thursday night.
Brad Keselowski – Just three top 10 finishes over his last 9 Duels, however 2 of the 3 have occurred in the last three years including a win a year ago.
Martin Truex Jr. – While he’s never won a points paying race at Daytona or Talladega (0-for-71), Truex does have 3 top 7 finishes in his last 4 Duel tries.
Denny Hamlin – You can never count him out. Hamlin, has won 3 total Daytona 500’s, 2 of which coming in the last 4 years and has two Duels wins overall since 2014 too including five top 10’s in that time frame.
Kyle Busch – Three of his last six Duels have seen him finish outside of the top 10. But, he also has seven top fives since 2015 too including a win in 2016 and fourth in 2021 and fourth last year. He starts 5th but doesn’t have much help in this Duel for many Chevy’s.
Kyle Larson – He’s never won a superspeedway race and has just 1 top 5 in 35 starts on them at that. However, Larson does have 7 top eight finishes in nine Duel tries including a third place result in 2020. With being on the front row already for Sunday, I question on why he’d want to mix it up at the front on Thursday night.
Chase Elliott – He’s won two Duels and has scored a top eight finish in six of his seven tries. However, how much drafting help is he going to get when his only other teammate in this race isn’t going to be racing up front for long.
Austin Cindric – Won last year’s Daytona 500, was second in his Duel and third in August’s ‘400. However, he has no teammates in this race like he did last year.
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. 2021, we had more cars showing up with 44 entries for 40 spots. The last two years though, it was back down to 42 cars for 40 spots.
The open teams this Speedweeks are Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Auto Club), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Conor Daly (The Money Team) and Travis Pastana (23XI Racing).
With all 36 chartered teams already in and Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana being the top two open qualifiers on Wednesday night, that means the four drivers of Zane Smith, Chandler Smith, Austin Hill and Conor Daly have to race their ways in to take the final two spots into the Great American Race.
How it works though is, if Johnson and Pastrana race their ways in, then next up on speed goes to the next fastest open car qualifier which is Zane Smith. After him is Austin Hill.
What this mean is, in Duel 1 you get Johnson and both Smith’s. If Johnson elects to just ride around in the back, then it’s down to each Smith to race their way in. If Johnson finishes ahead of both, then Zane Smith is in on speed.
Zane Smith’s best chances are to push Johnson in fact.
The second Duel comes down to Pastrana. If he is the top finisher among the open cars, then Zane Smith is also in. However, Pastrana said that his sponsors are paying for his car so long as it’s not wrecked. If he crashes, then he’s on the hook for this car financially himself.
His best play is to just ride it out in the back. However, one of his best friends in this race is Conor Daly and Daly needs some help. Pastrana in theory could push Daly to keep him ahead of Hill and if he can do so, then Daly gets the 40th and final spot into the Daytona 500.
What’s going for Daly too is, he has another good friend in Corey LaJoie also in this race so he has some friends who would work with him.
Expect quick races. 13 of the last 14 Duels ran to completion in less than one hour including 19 of the last 22 in general. The longest Duel since 2009 lasted 1-hour, 8-minutes and 25-minutes. Each Duel last year only lasted 48 minutes in total.
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 9 of the last 11 years have seen the Daytona 500 winner come from the first 7 Rows? In fact, its actually happened 11 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 32 Duels win the races on Thursday night as well. The pole winner is 0-for-22 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.
Odds and Ends
- Over the last 33 Duels, just once has a pole winner that race won.
- 10 of the last 11 straight Duels have been won from the 3rd starting spot on back.
- 13 of the last 15 Duels have been won from a starting spot in the top 4 Rows (Keselowski was 9th last year, Buescher 14th)
- 16 of the last 18 Duels in fact have been won from a top 10 starting spot.
- 23 of the last 28 Duels have been won from Row 2 on back
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 17 years. In fact, its only been done just five times since 1996.
The winner of the second Duel has led very minimal laps lately. Austin Dillon led two total laps in 2021’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. Chris Buescher led 17 laps a year ago.
That’s four of the last six 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 the 2021 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. Brad Keselowski’s four laps led last year was the anomaly.
That’s five of the last seven first Duels to where the winner led at the very minimum 19 laps.