The Field is Set! Recapping the Duels at Daytona

Duel 1: I was watching a train documentary, then a three lap long NASCAR race broke out.

Duel 2: ….NASCAR is officially back!

The Cup Series ran its first points-paying race of the 2023 season at the hallowed ground of Daytona International Speedway as drivers fought to determine the starting order for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

In qualifying earlier in the week, Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson locked up their front row starting spots, while Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana secured two of the available non-charter starting spots. Other than those four, the rest of the field had plenty to gain, and plenty to lose while fighting for points, spots… and for some, just the chance to compete at all.

Beyond Johnson and Pastrana, four other open drivers were vying for the final two spots in the field – Chandler Smith and Zane Smith participated in Duel 1, while Austin Hill, and Conor Daly ran in Duel 2.

Duel #1

In Duel 1, pole winner Alex Bowman dropped to the rear almost immediately to preserve a clean, fast car. By lap 15 the field sorted out mostly single file with Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace, and William Byron leading the way, while Zane Smith sorted out as the highest running of the open cars.

Green flag stops came on lap 23 for the Chevrolets. Chandler Smith – one of the two open cars – incurred a hugely consequential speeding penalty, all but taking him out of contention for a spot in the field unless some major misfortune befell Zane Smith. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also got nabbed for speeding.

The Fords and Toyotas pitted on lap 30, still led by Ryan Blaney. Strategies varied, with some cars taking tires and others not, shaking up the running order as Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick taking over the top two spots. Blaney and Wallace dropped to fourth and seventh respectively, while Ty Gibbs was nabbed for speeding.

The Fords and Toyotas managed their pit strategies well enough that the Chevrolets were not able to catch them. Logano, Harvick, Blaney, Buescher, and Bell made up the top-five.

With three to go action finally picked up, as seventh place Bubba Wallace dropped back a bit to try and get a run, and shot to the outside of Harrison Burton, followed by Michael McDowell. Wallace caught the lone other Toyota in the field of Christopher Bell who was running fifth, pushing him around the outside to the front. Bell took that run all the way to the outside of Logano, and nearly stole the win, but didn’t have enough help to make the pass, allowing Logano to hold on and capture the win.

Zane Smith came home p9, securing one of the two open spots and denying Kaulig Racing’s Chandler Smith the opportunity at his Cup Series debut.

Duel #2

In Duel 2, Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola rolled off on the front row. Austin Hill and Conor Daly were the two open drivers in the second duel fighting for the last available starting spot. Unlike Duel 1, front row driver Kyle Larson didn’t fall to the rear right away, and the field stayed two wide. Conor Daly, meanwhile, who had a major handling issue on the pace laps following a week of seemingly nothing but issues for The Money Team, lost touch with the draft almost immediately.

On lap 7, the first caution of the night flew as a passenger side window blew out of Justin Haley’s car and came to a rest on track. Under yellow, everyone save for Justin Haley and B.J. McLeod peeled off to pit road – though Haley had to pit to replace his window, and McLeod pitted the next time around (and stalled in his pitbox). Aric Almirola and Kyle Larson won the race off pit road, and found themselves back on the front row.

The race went back green with 49 to go.

Daly managed to keep pace with the pack this time, but Austin Hill was still the highest running open car. After about five laps however, Daly again lost touch with the draft. He would eventually get lapped, and seemingly all but yield the final starting spot in the 500 to Austin Hill.

By lap 20, the field sorted out single file, led by Kyle Busch and Daniel Suárez, where they would remain for several dozen laps. Starting with 27 to go, Denny Hamlin started to make some moves midway through the pack and jumped to the outside a few times to test the waters, but only made marginal gains.

With 20 to go, chaos broke out as Kyle Busch got a big push in the right rear from Daniel Suárez that sent him hard into the outside wall in front of the whole field. Most cars managed to scoot by unscathed on the inside, but further back in the pack where cars were running two wide, some drivers got tangled up – including open driver Austin Hill who spun, made contact with the wall and other cars, and ended up in the grass.

Hill was able to make it back to pit road and was put on the Damaged Vehicle Clock, only needing to beat Conor Daly who was already a lap down and in a badly off pace car. His suspension was badly damaged in the wreck, and while the team tried to get him back out on track to limp his way in, he ultimately had to withdraw from the race.

Riley Herbst and Travis Pastrana also had their days ended in the wreck. Thankfully for Pastrana he had already raced his way in on qualifying speed, but the misfortune for both Pastrana and Hill allowed Conor Daly – despite having a car that was bouncing like it was on a “supercross track” on the pace laps – to make the Daytona 500.

Pit stops ensued, which saw Daniel Suárez slide the tires and miss his pit stall, costing him the lead and sending him to the rear. Aric Almirola and Kyle Larson took over the front row with 14 to go. The field stayed two by two as the action heated up right as the green dropped as several drivers – particularly Brad Keselowski – started giving big pushes to try and force their way to the front.

With four to go, Austin Cindric and Aric Almirola were on the front row, being pushed by Todd Gilliland and Kyle Larson respectively. Cindric and Gilliland used a big run to pull to the bottom line, letting Corey LaJoie to take a big run on the outside toward to front. Cindric threw a huge block on a charging LaJoie, yielding the lead to Gilliland.

Coming to the white flag, Almirola shot to the outside of Gilliland and pulled back even. Gilliland took a shot from Kyle Larson in turn 1, and nearly spun in front of the whole field – but Todd pulled off the save of a lifetime and avoided junking half the field. Almirola meanwhile took the lead and never looked back, securing the win in the second duel. Austin Cindric came home p2, followed by Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, and Corey LaJoie.

We’ll see you on Sunday!

Photo credit: NASCAR on Twitter

Published by Walker Skeeter

Walker is a 4th year climatology PhD candidate at the University of Delaware. Despite being a climate scientist, Walker has been a NASCAR fan for over 20 years! His favorite drivers are Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, and Alex Bowman in cup, and AJ Allmendinger, Tommy Joe Martins, and Ryan Vargas in Xfinity. Outside of racing, he enjoys talking about (and studying) the weather, watching Baltimore sports, and playing video games.

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