For a majority of the first 59 laps, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in control atop the field at Daytona International Speedway. Blocking all comers, it looked like his first race back from a concussion would wind up with another Can-Am Duel trophy.
But it’s too bad for him that Denny Hamlin had other plans.
Hamlin, using a push by Austin Dillon, took control late and surged to the win in Thursday’s second Duel. Earnhardt, after losing his drafting partners, faded to sixth at the finish and felt like he simply got outfoxed.
Earnhardt fell to sixth after losing the draft while Clint Bowyer, in his first start for Stewart-Haas Racing, surged to second in the final lap. SHR teammate Kurt Busch was third, followed by AJ Allmendinger and Dillon to round out the top five.
“That thing’s been a rocket ship since I’ve been here,” Bowyer said. “But you expect that driving for one of these teams.”
Danica Patrick, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson and Ty Dillon rounded out the top-10 performers. Further back, DJ Kennington used a late surge in the final turn to push by Elliott Sadler and earn his first Daytona 500 start.
“A lot of learning,” Kennington, who finished 15th, said. “But in the end, we’re in it, and that’s what counts.”
Ryan Blaney showed strength early in the event, fighting hard with Earnhardt for track position up front. But the young driver wound up in a bad spot, the victim of contact between Jimmie Johnson and David Ragan that left him making an unscheduled pit stop for a flat tire. Erik Jones was also involved in a fracas that ended with Johnson blowing a tire, hitting the wall and causing a caution. It’s the fourth time Johnson has wrecked in his last three races at Daytona.