How the front row, plus Johnson/Pastrana race tonight’s Bluegreen Duels in Daytona, their thoughts with a few betting picks

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — After Daytona 500 qualifying on Wednesday night, the only four people feeling good right now are the pair of front row starters and the top two open drivers. That’s it. There’s 38 other drivers at the World Center of Racing anxiously awaiting their turn to run in the pair of twin 150’s under the lights on Thursday evening.

With that said, how will Thursday’s racing look? The Duels as of late have been a pair of 48-minute mini series’. Among the 38 drivers with something on the line, 34 of them already know that they have guaranteed spots into Sunday’s 65th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN). With only two short practice sessions left following the Duels, why risk tearing up your race car when there’s not much to be gained in 60 laps of racing on Thursday?

The race is at night. There’s no data for tonight that will translate over to Sunday’s race in the middle of the day. Literally nothing.

Well, in all actuality, there is something you can learn tonight…that’s how to time your moves.

Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric worked together in last year’s Duels and it translated over to them helping each other on the late race final restart three days later in the Daytona 500. Blaney, helped Cindric, win. Cindric countered Blaney’s move on the final lap to become the fourth first time winner in the last six years here.

The rest of what to gain on Thursday night?


It’s why I don’t expect much out of those two guaranteed front row starters of Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson. Each will lead the field to green tonight – Bowman in Duel 1, Larson in Duel 2.

“It’s hard to say,” Bowman said on how he’ll approach the Duels tonight. “Last year I think the state of who had cars and all that was really worrying kind of across the board. This year it just really depends on how it drives, right? Obviously we’re here to get the front row. We’re in qualifying trim. You can’t really change much.

“We’ll see how it drives in the draft. If it drives well, we’ll race hard. If it’s sketchy and I’m going to crash the thing, obviously you want to protect it. Yeah, going to do all we can to keep it up front and see how it drives.”

See, the cars were impounded between qualifying and racing the Duels. No changes can be made. If you’re in a more aggressive qualifying setup, then that’s how you race it on Thursday night. As a result, the balance isn’t going to be right and the car won’t be any good in the draft.

Hence Bowman saying that they’ll have to be careful.

Larson agrees. No reason to take any chances.

The end goal for this tandem is a Daytona 500 win. They’ve each been here before and in each instance, it didn’t pan out.

Bowman has started on the front row for this race now in six consecutive years. He’s 0-for-5 in his previous five starts from the front row with zero top 10’s to show for it.

“Yeah, for sure,” Bowman said on if the pressure is even stronger after another front row start. “Every year. Man, now it’s time to finish, like make it to the end. Last year I think I sat on the back straightaway for four laps before they could figure out how to get me to pit road with four flat tires.

“Yeah, it’s such a hard race to finish. We’ve crashed early, we’ve crashed in the middle, we’ve crashed late. Obviously I don’t have the answer to that. I haven’t figured out how to finish it yet.

“I know we have a really fast race car and a great group of guys that are capable of doing great. But, man, it’s been tough. We want to finish this race and finish it well.”

Larson is in the same boat. He’s never had a Daytona top five finish in the Cup Series (0-for-17). Counting Talladega and the pair of drafting races in Atlanta a year ago, Larson has one top five finish in 35 superspeedway starts.

“I don’t know, I mean, you always study before every race,” Larson said of his superspeedway struggles. “I don’t know. We do it every week. We go over every race. Same as for Daytona and Talladega both, we go and try to probably dive deeper than normal. More of the same tomorrow.

“But I would like to kind of see how the good guys set themselves up throughout a run to be up towards the front or wherever they need to be to miss wrecks and stuff.

“It’s just a difficult style of racing that, I don’t know, I just haven’t had the best of time in my career. I used to always say it’s bad luck, but I don’t necessarily feel that way any more.

“Yeah, just try to, as you do with every racetrack, just get better.”

He knows that he has a fast race car under him so why risk tearing it up on Thursday night?

Over the last 33 Duels, just once has a pole winner that race won. That says everything you need to know.

What about the pair of open cars? They’re extra cars to their teams. Is it worth the risk to mix it up on Thursday night when it’s not needed?

Jimmie Johnson doesn’t think so. What he does think is that it’s best to learn in the draft some, but since he knows he’s in on speed, finishing position in the Duels is irrelevant to him.

“Yeah, we need to learn,” Johnson said on his approach tonight. “There’s no doubt about it. I mean, there’s two practice sessions I think before the 500.

“But it is best to get in there and try to learn. So I just need to be aware of these situations I’m putting myself in, be aware of what’s going on around me, if I don’t like it, get out.

“But trying to find quality reps in the Duel itself or the two practice sessions, I’ve got to do that. I’ve got so much to learn about the car. Todd has not worked on this car before. Have a new spotter, a spotter I’ve never worked with before. There’s a lot of elements we need to get reps.”

As far as if it matters where he finishes?

Johnson says that part is behind them, thankfully.

Travis Pastrana is also in a similar situation. If Johnson crashes, he has to pay for his car because he’s a part owner. For Pastrana, he too would have to pay for crash damage if it should incur.

“So I’ve got some awesome sponsors, awesome car. I took the money for this race and I put it into racing the Truck Series and racing the dirt car nationals last week,” he said. “We didn’t quite have enough money to cover it.

“All the damage that’s done is on me. It’s my kids’ college education fund. You will be seeing a very mellow race tomorrow. We got Hedlesky in there. I’ll do whatever I can to learn as much as I can. But looking at Noah Gragson last year, he was three laps down, and I would be perfectly fine with that if that gets us in the show, we can start from there.

“Having said that, I go into tomorrow as any racer does, trying to learn what we can. If Hedlesky tells me to go, start pushing, start learning, well, it is what it is and we’ll try to make the smart decisions all the way through.

“At the end of the day we’re in it to do the best that we can. Damage or no damage, my goal is to obviously not be the cause of any of it, try to do the best we can.

“Hey, I’m going for it. We’ll see what happens.”

He says that no matter what, if there’s damage, he’s paying for it no matter who’s at fault. The easiest way to overcome that, to bring the car home in one piece. Most that do, have chances to win….

Pastrana though would love nothing more than to help his good friend Conor Daly race his way in. He wants to help him and joked that Daly is the only person that he’d risk his kids’ college fund in doing so.

But will he really?

For the other 34 that know that they’re already locked in, they too can tame it down. Which leaves the racing truly down to the four cars racing for the final two spots.

Drivers To Watch

Duel 1:

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.

Duel 2:

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.

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

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 17 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 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.

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