Logano, Almirola split 2023 Duel wins on Thursday night, my thoughts with top 5 takeaways from the twin 150’s

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — One driver is coming off of a NASCAR Cup Series championship. Another isn’t even supposed to be here. At the end of the night, both celebrated wins in Thursday night’s Daytona 500 qualifying races.

Joey Logano led 29 of 60 laps en route to his third career Bluegreen Duels victory, two of which coming in the opening 150-mile qualifier. Logano inherited the lead on Lap 31 and never relinquished it despite a furious challenge by Christopher Bell late.

Logano had the ace in the hole in his back pocket. Drafting help by a choir of Ford’s.

Logano, teammate Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick and Chris Buescher ran 1-2-3-4. Bell still tried to make it a fight. Logano was just that good. He crossed the Daytona International Speedway finish line just .018-seconds ahead of Bell.

“Just a great job by the Shell-Pennzoil team,” a happy Logano boasted. “The execution of this race is everything because you know most likely there won’t be a caution so you’ve got to do a good job on pit road, cycle yourself to the front.

“But then I am sitting there as the leader and I’m like, man, I am a sitting duck. This is not where you want to be.

“I was hoping they started racing back there, which they did, which ended up kind of working out for me. And then when the 20 got to me, I saw Blaney was behind me. I said, that’s my buddy. I’ve got to stick with him. I knew the 20 would make the run to the outside, and I probably wasn’t going to be able to defend that, and just waited for the 12 to push me through there.

“Good Penske effort there to get a Duels win. Much better than what happened last year, so glad to have a nice start here for the season.”

Bell snuck in there for his second runner-up in the last three years in these Duels. While he could have been mad he lost out again, he was actually just the opposite as he was happy his No. 20 Toyota came home in one piece.

“I don’t really know. I need to watch it back and see what happened,” Bell said of the final lap. “Stevie, my spotter, got on there and said I didn’t have any help once I got outside the 22. Yeah, so ultimately thrilled with second, to get nine points.

“Speedway racing has been a really big struggle for us and it’s been a focus to try and execute a little bit better.

“Proud of all of our partners at Rheem and DeWalt to get them a good showing early on in the season at one of my weaker racetracks, so hopefully we can build on this and maybe finish my first Daytona 500.”

Blaney finished third in his No. 12 Ford while Buescher and Michael McDowell rounded out the top five in the caution free event.

Almirola Wins 2nd Duel

The second Duel packed much more entertainment in the 60 lap race. 15 lead changes among 6 drivers including 3 of which in the final five laps.

Aric Almirola had the car to beat and he made all the right moves to position his No. 10 Ford in the front of the pack coming to the end. Todd Gilliland got too big of a push from Kyle Larson who also was getting shoved from behind by Brad Keselowski which as a result, got Gilliland loose exiting the tri-oval. That separation allowed Almirola to prevail ahead and he was unchallenged on his route to his second career Duels victory, each coming in the last three years.

Almirola crossed the stripe .122-seconds ahead of last year’s Daytona 500 champion, Austin Cindric.

“Yeah, I did have my hands full,” Almirola said. “Drew (Blinkensderfer, crew chief) said this Smithfield Ford Mustang was going to be fast, but he said I would probably have my hands full. We kind of went for it in qualifying and put on the speed in the car sacrificed some handling, and as you could see tonight it was a handful, but, man, this is so cool.

“Daytona is such a special place to me. I’ve grew up sitting in those grandstands dreaming about racing here. I want that one on Sunday, though. My boss up in the booth during that first Duel, he said, I’ve won this race three times, but yet to do it on Sunday.

“I know Sunday is the big one. We’re going to keep focused on that one. The job is not finished.”

Almirola says that it’s remarkable that he’s even here celebrating this win. This time last year, the Tampa native was gearing up for what was going to be his final Daytona 500 start. He announced that he was retiring at season’s end. However, as the year went along, so did his feelings. Almirola changed his mind and signed a new contract to come back for another go at it with SHR.

Now, he’s in victory lane again in Daytona.

“Just really proud. So thankful. I’m not even supposed to be here,” he continued. “I’m supposed to be retired. This is awesome.”

Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Corey LaJoie rounded out the top five in the wild event that also featured two cautions that completely altered the back end of the Daytona 500 field.

Zane Smith easily topped Chandler Smith in the opening Duel as Chandler sped on pit road and fell a lap down early. He’s never get it back. Smith also beat Jimmie Johnson to the line and took the open spot from Dual 1. Johnson fell back on his qualifying speed.

That set up a Conor Daly vs. Austin Hill battle for the 40th and final spot into the race. Travis Pastrana already had a spot on his speed.

Daly’s car was off from the get go. He lost the draft twice and fell a lap down during the final time. Luckily for him, the Lap 7 debris caution and the Lap 42 crash on the backstretch that was sparked by an overly aggressive push by Daniel Suarez to leader Kyle Busch’s bumper shaped the outcomes for Daly and Hill.

Hill was hit by Pastrana in the fracas which sent both behind the wall. Daly, despite being a lap down, was in. He’ll advance to the big show.

Ford’s Are Fast

The Chevrolet cars sent a message on Wednesday during qualifying. However, that’s single car speed that rewards the body shop back in North Carolina more so than the team in Daytona. The bowties went 1-2-3 in quals.

In the qualifying races however, the Ford’s flexed their Detroit muscle…again.

Joey Logano won Race 1. Aric Almirola won Race 2. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. That’s nine Ford wins in the Duel in the last 11 tries including five straight.

Not only are they winning, they’re dominating too.

In Duel 1, Ford’s went 1-3-4-5-6-8-9. In Duel 2, they went 1-2-4-7.

Last year, they went 1-2-3-4 in Duel 1 and 1-2-3 in Duel 2.

They led 26 of 60 laps in Duel 1 last year and 50 of 60 in Duel 2. On Thursday night, they led 59 of 60 laps in the first Duel and 21 of 60 in Duel 2.

Combined, that’s 65% (156-for-240) of laps led over the last two years as well as 14 of the potential 20 top five positions.

A year ago, they turned that into 4 cars in the top 5 at the finish of the Daytona 500. Can they replicate that?

“It was obviously a pretty good race for the Fords,” said Logano. “Execution went really well. Our cars were fast, which is nice. We showed that in qualifying last night; we were faster than typical in qualifying.

“Some good gains there, and that transferred into the race that the cars had speed, and the execution of the Fords working together, doing the pit road piece really well, which kind of separated us.”

Toyota didn’t lead a single lap under the lights on Thursday…

Certain Drivers Are Separating Themselves In These Duels

A trend is forming lately and that it’s the same drivers are creeping their ways to the front of the Duels on an annual basis. Joey Logano has 3 Duel wins in 5 years to go along with nine straight top 10 finishes. Furthermore, he’s actually finished in the top four in nine of the last 11 years at that.

Aric Almirola has two wins in three years.

Christopher Bell has a pair of runner-ups in the last three years including a 5th place finish in the middle of that.

Ryan Blaney has seven top six finishes in nine Duel tries.

Austin Cindric won last year’s Daytona 500 and was second in his Duel the last two years too.

Chris Buescher won last year and fourth this time around. His teammate, Brad Keselowski, has 4 top 10 finishes in his last 10 Duels, however 3 of the 4 have occurred in the last four years. He was first last year and third this year.

Michael McDowell was 9th, 2nd and 5th in his last three tries.

Kevin Harvick has eight top six finishes in his last nine tries in these qualifying races including a third-place effort in 2017, a runner-up in 2018, a win in 2019, third in 2021 and sixth on Thursday.

Bubba Wallace was runner-up in 2021 and seventh last year.

Martin Truex Jr. has 4 top 8 finishes in his last 5 Duel tries.

Kyle Larson has never won a superspeedway race and has just 1 top 5 in 35 starts on them at that. However, Larson does have 8 top eight finishes in 10 Duel tries including a third place result in 2020.

Chase Elliott has won two Duels and has scored a top eight finish in seven of his eight tries.

Clinch Spots Almost Anticlimatic Because Chandler Smith, Austin Hill Make Self Inflicted Mistakes

When NASCAR envisioned this new platform for open cars, I don’t think they envisioned it going the way that it did on Thursday night. Neither race came down to that last lap pass for an open spot into the Great American Race.

Chandler Smith sped on his pit stop near mid race. He was a lap down the rest of the way. Conor Daly fell a lap down early and still made it as the only real action came with that Lap 42 crash that collected Austin Hill and Travis Pastrana.

Luckily the second Duel ramped up the intensity or this night was shaping up to be an anticlimactic one.

However, Chandler Smith threw his bid away by speeding on pit road. Hill gave up his spot by riding in the draft in harms way for which all he had to do was basically cross the finish line. Instead, he was in the garage at race end and both Georgia natives won’t race in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Duels Are Made For Learning

With no practice before qualifying and Thursday night’s Duels, it added an even more importance on this race just for the learning. While you can’t take much data from tonight and apply it to Sunday (one is a day race and the other at night), you can time your moves and learn something strategy wise that you can apply for the win on Sunday.

It happened last year for Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney. They made moves in their Duel together to which they used to win the Daytona 500 three days later. Joey Logano also made a move last year that didn’t work. He knew if put in that situation again this year, like he was, that he knew what to do to be better.

It clearly paid off.

“Well, yeah, duh. Hey, that’s why I always say, making mistakes are okay as long as you learn from them,” Logano said. “I made a massive mistake last year. I felt like an idiot. But being able to have another chance at it, that’s what life is about. If you don’t take risks and be willing to make mistakes, you don’t really learn.

“I learned a valuable lesson last year and was able to just be smart about the way I worked the draft there at the end. Felt confident. I knew what blocks I was going to be able to throw and which ones I wouldn’t, and you kind of seen that into Turn 3 where I just let the 20 have it. There was no sense of trying to make that block.

“I learned some valuable lessons and it worked out. Maybe last year wasn’t so bad after all.

“Absolutely I learned things. Any time you get on the racetrack these days, it’s very valuable. We don’t have much time on the racetrack anymore. We didn’t practice yesterday, so we’ve not made a lap. So you fire off on the first lap and you’re bumping and banging and you’re like, hope she drives okay when you get there.

“Yeah, definitely learned some things. I want to go back and talk to Paul tonight and come up with a game plan for practice tomorrow and how we can tune our car in a little bit better. It’s not bad. Obviously it’s fast. Handles pretty good. Takes a push pretty well. Just kind of little things that you can fine tune, which is a nice place to be, right?”

Logano notes that while changes will be made, it’s not like they’re wholesaling their race car either.

“We got a fast race car, so want to maintain that. But there’s never enough,” he continued. “It’s never good enough. You’ve got to keep looking for more.”

Logano has always been one of the top drivers at Daytona and Talladega. Thursday night was his third Duel win in the last five years. As far as what makes him so great, he said that speedway racing has evolved over the years and you absolutely have to evolve with it. However, by doing so, it takes a lot of work to be good here. How much effort are drivers willing to put into this style of racing?

“I don’t think anybody at Penske looks at speedway racing as a luck thing,” Logano says. “Sometimes you just have bad placement.

“But the majority of it is if you can control some things or you can keep yourself towards the front — if you get wrecked in the front, you get wrecked in the front. Like what are you going to do?

“But I think you can still put yourself up there with doing things correctly. I mean, Blaney is part of those conversations when it was the three of us then.”

The two-time Cup Series champion says that what also helps him in the learning process are his teammates and how each of their styles are different, but you can combine all into one and have a great plan on what to do right.

“Now everybody has like their own style,” he says. “Like Blaney’s style out there is significantly different than mine and what I’m willing to do compared to what he’s willing to do. We drive our cars two completely different ways in the draft, which Brad and I probably were a little bit more alike in the draft, which worked out really well.

“But Blaney has done a great job at finishing up front and winning these things, as well. There’s more than one way to do this, and Blaney has kind of found his way that works for him.

“Knowing that, that kind of fits into the recipe of how we’re going to figure this whole thing out together. So as Austin and Harrison are able to get more laps out there, learn about the draft, learn the things they want to do, they’re good students of the game, too, they’re listening well and doing their own studies and those type of things.

“The game is not as simple as it used to be. It evolves. It evolves so quickly. This draft is never the same two races in a row, no matter if the rules are different or the same. It never is the same from one week to the next.”

For Aric Almirola, he says the Duels are a double edged sword. There’s usually one Duel that’s tame. The other is overly aggressive. Which one does he prefer to be in?

The tame one gets you to the finish and with a clean Daytona 500 car, but how much do you learn? The chaotic one is a risk that you could potentially end up in a backup car.

“That’s a good point,” said the Duel 2 winner. “Yeah, I think when it’s more aggressive and more racy, like we’ll actually have Sunday, I think that there is more learning to be had in that, absolutely.

“When it gets really strung out and calm and tame and there’s only five, six, seven cars and you’re running single file, you don’t really learn a lot. You don’t really know what you have for handling and when your car is put in a bad situation.

“I learned a lot tonight about how my car drives in certain situations, how it drives when I’m pushing, how it drives when I’m getting pushed, how it drives when I’m getting pushed or pushed in the outside line versus the inside lane, when I pull out really aggressively to make a move, like all those things, I have a really good understanding of what I have, where if the race is relatively tame and calm, you don’t get that information.

“That’s a good point. I didn’t think about that. But from a driver’s standpoint, it is a little bit more nerve-racking when you’re getting shoved around and you’re like, man, this is just the Duel. I don’t want to tear my race car up in the Duel. Our car is so fast, you want to make sure you get it to Sunday.”

Quick Races

Expect quick races. 14 of the last 16 Duels ran to completion in less than one hour including 20 of the last 24 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. Both on Thursday night were quick.

Duel 1 lasted 47-minutes and 58-seconds. Duel 2 was 1-hour even and 55 seconds.

Odds and Ends

  • Over the last 35 Duels, just once has a pole winner that race won.
  • 11 of the last 13 straight Duels have been won from the 3rd starting spot on back.
  • 15 of the last 17 Duels have been won from a starting spot in the top 4 Rows (Keselowski was 9th last year, Buescher 14th)
  • 18 of the last 20 Duels in fact have been won from a top 10 starting spot.
  • 24 of the last 30 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.

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