Florida’s sports domination continued on Thursday night as Aric Almirola from Tampa won the first Bluegreen Vacations Duel at his home track, Daytona International Speedway.
In his no. 10 Ford Mustang, Almirola led 52 of the race’s 60 laps after starting second to Alex Bowman, who encountered engine issues during the race in his pole-winning no. 48 Chevrolet.
“It’s a big statement,” Almirola said. “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.”
Almirola earned 10 points with his dominating duel win, while some drivers like Ty Dillon and Austin Cindric were merely battling for a starting spot in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Ryan Preece was the first non-chartered car to finish the duel, but because he locked his Daytona 500 spot in during Wednesday’s single-car qualifying, Cindric earned the duel 1 transfer spot into Sunday’s race since he was the next fastest open car in single-car qualifying competing in the duel.
“The scenario in which it had to play out was very specific,” Cindric said. “[Preece] got trapped on the top. When [Dillon] went down to the middle lane in three and four, I shoved for all I could. The last lap I didn’t care about anything else around me other than shoving. I think that’s probably the first time the entire race that I didn’t worry about who was in what car, hurting whose feelings.”
Dillon’s sixth-place run was one spot too short to secure a starting spot for Sunday’s Daytona 500, and Timmy Hill, driving the last of the open cars in duel 1, finished 19th and was unable to race into the 500.
The first duel started with a side-by side battle for the lead. Aric Almirola cleared Alex Bowman on lap 2, but Daniel Suarez took the pair three-wide on lap three to claim the lead for himself. Suarez’s time up front was short lived, as Christopher Bell took the lead in his new no. 20 machine just one lap later.
By the end of lap 8, four drivers – Bowman, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – all dropped to the rear of the field anticipating a wreck in the massive pack of cars ahead of them. At the front, Almirola was now side-by-side with Bell, challenging him for the lead. Almirola cleared Bell for the lead after the cars behind bell got stacked up. Suddenly, the Ford quartet of Almirola, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell were leading the race on the inside line.
At the one-third mark, drivers began to make moves. Hamlin moved through the field to fifth behind Matt DiBenedetto, who forced the lead draft of cars to the outside lane. Almirola, Logano and McDowell were able to block DiBenedetto’s run, keeping the top-three spots for the moment.
At the halfway point of the race, Alex Bowman pulled onto pit road, saying that his engine was blowing up and ending the Daytona 500 polesitter’s night early.
The Ford drivers all made a dash to pit road with 27 laps to go, with many getting fuel only. Austin Cindric in Team Penske’s no. 33 Ford Mustang was penalized for speeding on pit road, which ford him to serve a pass-through penalty in the pits.
The Toyotas came to pit road one lap after the Fords, and the Chevrolet teams pitted after the Toyotas. The Ford of Aric Almriola cycled back to the front of the pack with Loagno, DiBenedetto and Newman still following. Ty Dillon, one of the non-chartered cars, found himself in fifth as the highest-running open car with the laps in duel 1 winding down. Bowman was able to return to the track two laps down, but was still feeling a vibration in his car before he lost another lap on track.
With 10 laps to go, Denny Hamlin took his no. 11 to the inside line and brought Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Christopher Bell and others with him. The drivers at the front began to shift between the inside and outside line as Bell and Hamlin led a charge to the front of the field. Bell and Hamlin raced to third and fourth, respectively, and abandoned the inside line of cars they constructed to go to the outside, which created another long line of cars on the outside.
Joey Logano mounted one final charge on Almirola coming off turn four to the checkered flag, but with Bell’s help, Almirola was able to secure the win in duel 1 as his teammate, Cole Custer, wrecked behind the field. Ryan Preece was the first open car to finish the duel, but because he was already locked into the Daytona 500 on his qualifying speed from Wednesday, Austin Cindric in Team Penske’s no. 33 became the other non-chartered car to get into the Daytona 500 based on his speed in Wednesday’s single-car qualifying session.
The top ten in the first duel were Almirola, Bell, Newman, Logano, Preece, Dillon, Larson, Suarez, McDowell and McMurray.
Featured photo credit: Nigel Cook/News-Journal