The Headline(s): Two duels, one headline: Fast. On. Race. Day.
Ford’s new Mustang proved ever the menace that last years’ Fusion was on the racetrack, with Ford sweeping the top three positions in both Gander RV Duel races. Kevin Harvick scored the win in race one, while Joey Logano made a daring last-lap pass of fellow Ford driver Clint Bowyer to secure the second Duel trophy.
How It Happened:
Though they ended differently, both Duels unfolded in similar fashion. The Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut that smoked the field in Sunday time trials led both Duel races in the early laps, but as soon as green flag pit stops took place, the Fords took the point and never looked back.
Duel 1 was stopped by a lap 27 caution flag that saw Jimmie Johnson misjudge a tuck move coming off turn 2; Johnson essentially turned right into the quarterpanel of Kyle Busch’s No. 18 and spun him. Busch was fortunate to avoid any damage as a result of the incident but was irate over the radio at being Johnson’s latest victim this Speedweeks.
The restart following that caution produced the only extended stretch of side-by-side racing seen on Thursday night, but it was short-lived and resulted in Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard taking the front and keeping it the rest of the way.
Duel 1 did produce the most compelling battle of the night, which was for the transfer spot. For nearly the entire race, the three non-charter cars in the field (Kligerman, Truex and Tyler Reddick) ran in the same pack, and with less than 20 to go the math was clear: Reddick’s Chevrolet was leading that pack, Truex’s Chevrolet was bringing up the rear and the Toyota of Kligerman was stuck in the middle. Reddick was working with Truex to keep Kligerman pinned, and it appeared Chevrolet was going to get Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 71 into Sunday’s feature.
Enter Kyle Busch, who following his wreck with Johnson was left running on his own. Busch, in a Toyota and operating with instructions from his spotter and pit road, pushed Kligerman past Reddick into the final transfer position, earning Kligerman and the Gaunt Brothers Racing team a spot in the Great American Race.
Duel 2 proved anti-climatic until the final lap, which saw Logano execute the best move of Speedweeks to date, dropping to the low side and moving from fourth to first past Bowyer on the backstretch to score the win.
Logano’s move derailed any chance that Denny Hamlin, the lone Toyota interloper in the top five, had to spoil the Mustang party Thursday night.
The battle for the transfer spot in this duel was anything but; Gaughan hooked up with Corey LaJoie and Casey Mears, who spent the event protecting their primary cars and ran their own race away from the lead draft, while Gase spent the evening well off the pace and was never a threat to qualify for the 500 field.
Should You Care?
Yes, if for no other reason that 42 cars contested for 40 spots in the field. Unlike last season, the Duels actually had (a few) consequences.
I wrote in Thinkin’ this past Sunday that for as god awful a Clash as fans were subjected to, Speedweeks was not lost. The Duels to a degree did prove that, as there were flashes of the inside line being able to keep up, and there were cars that proved capable of making passes unassisted. Though it didn’t show in the final running order, both Daniel Suarez and Chase Elliott were able to make unassisted passes in the back of the drafting packs, the lap 30 restart in Duel 1 produced multiple laps of side-by-side racing, and Logano went from fourth to first in one corner to win Duel 2.
All of the drivers have been adamant in their post-race pressers that with 40 cars on track, we’ll see a different race than we’ve seen so far on the big track. There’s reason to think those statements are more than public relations.
Chevrolet won Sunday time trials in a big way, but Ford won Thursday in a bigger way. The Mustang is the clear frontrunner for the trophy in this Sunday’s 500, sweeping the podium in both Duels, while the blue oval brigade of drivers appear to be driving in lockstep with orders to, as Stenhouse stated in his post-race remarks, “make sure a Ford wins.” The 2019 Duels marked the first time since the year 2000 that Ford swept both qualifying races. For fans of the blue oval, this Speedweeks looks to be one to remember.
And while Chevrolet and Ford are visibly taking salvos at each other, don’t count Toyota out, either. The racing may not be living up to fans’ expectations at this point through Speedweeks, but for those fans that support auto racing for its manufacturer rivalries, there’s plenty to keep an eye on in Daytona Beach. Ford is making headlines for its teamwork, but it wasn’t the only one playing friendly with its fellow nameplates. The battle waged between Ryan Truex and Kligerman for the transfer spot in the first Duel was one of the best examples of manufacturer battling in recent memory. Reddick’s crew was all over the radio, coordinating with their driver and Truex’s team to keep Kligerman pinned.
For Reddick, a race that he told Frontstretch on Sunday was going to essentially be a test session turned into a pitched effort to get another bowtie into the big race. Same thing for Kyle Busch, who ended up laying waste to the Chevrolets’ plan and pushing fellow Toyota driver Kligerman into the Daytona 500. Busch, still fuming from being dumped by Johnson earlier in the race, was running alone in the back and even questioned why his team was instructing him to get involved in helping Kligerman, asking, “what’s to be gained?” before his spotter filled him in on the transfer battle.
With the Mustang in the field, NASCAR has arguably the most recognizable stable of stock nameplates it’s had racing in recent memory. And the manufacturers, at least at Daytona, are giving a damn.
That, plus doubling the size of the field, means after Thursday, Speedweeks is still not lost.
Drivers That Accomplished Something
Kligerman and Gaughan both raced their way into the Daytona 500. Short of winning it, that’s about the biggest accomplishment Speedweeks has to offer.
There are no shortage of drivers to pick from in the Ford brigade that showed their strength in this race. Harvick won Duel 1 in dominating fashion. Logano won Duel 2 with the strongest pass any driver in any nameplate has mustered through Speedweeks thus far. Menard proved the Clash was no fluke, finishing runner-up in his Duel race. Stewart-Haas drivers Bowyer and Almirola both scored podium finishes. And despite a finish in the back of the pack, Suarez showed on multiple occasions that his No. 41 car is able to pass on its own.
Bubba Wallace had another strong finish at Daytona, with a well-timed move on the final lap of the first Duel to capitalize on a stalled-out top line to score a top-five finish. If Wallace can survive the first 490 miles of Sunday’s race, he’s continually showing savvy in what to do in the final 10. Chevrolet’s best shot on Sunday might not be in the Hendrick stable.
Though Elliott would probably object to that statement. He proved the one car in the back of the second Duel that could pull off unassisted passes.
And Hamlin led the Toyota pack again.
Drivers That Accomplished Nothing
Ryan Truex and Gase failed to qualify for the Daytona 500.
Johnson followed up causing the Big One in the Clash by spinning arguably the most hot-tempered driver in the NASCAR garage in his Duel race. I hear Cody Ware might need a drafting partner Sunday.
Tifft scored three pit road penalties in his first Cup event. Keselowski is thankful to have Tifft in a Ford to take the spotlight away from his two pit road penalties, including a one-lap whopper for pitting outside the box.
Jamie McMurray probably lost more than any other driver that started the evening locked into the 500 field. 40 laps into his Duel, McMurray was running sixth and holding his own in the draft. However, by race’s end, numerous other Chevrolets got around McMurray without assistance, and the No. 40 car was being cited by numerous drivers as the weakest of the bunch in the lead draft.
McMurray was heard repeatedly complaining about a lack of straightaway speed in his Clash car on Sunday, and it certainly appears that McMurray’s car is only capable of running in the pack, not assisting it. McMurray and the No. 40 team are going to be playing track position defense for 500 miles this coming Sunday.
Insight, Opinions and Fake News
It’s always been a longshot for any part-time car that qualifies for the Daytona 500 to actually contend for the race win. But Thursday’s Duels showed what is becoming a gaping chasm between the power, charter-holding teams and the handful of operations out there competing without one.
Gaughan transferred into the Daytona 500 without finishing on the lead lap in his Duel, winning what could hardly be called a battle with Gase, who finished three laps down and was clearly the slowest car entered on Thursday. As entertaining as the manufacturer strategy was as Kligerman and Ryan Truex battled for a spot in the 500 field, that race was decided because Kligerman’s partner was stronger than Truex’s; both the Nos. 71 96 were incapable of deciding their race on their own. The days of a 36-car charter field may be sooner than later.
It’s ironic that Johnson has Ally pasted across his hood. The way he’s racing this Speedweeks, I doubt he has any left.
Johnson did admit, “I got it wrong” when discussing how he spun Kyle Busch. That admission came about 96 hours too late for the rest of the Cup garage.
The four-leaf clover from his son that Harvick discussed carrying in his car en route to winning Duel 1 may be a nice story, but the whole lucky charm in the car storyline is just ringing hollow by now after hearing all the gushing over Austin Dillon’s lucky penny last year. Call me back when someone wins with a broken mirror and an urn of Indian remains in the cockpit.
I’m not going to go as far as saying to cancel the Duels because of the overabundance of single-file racing seen Thursday night. The concept of allowing teams to race their way into the biggest show of the year has merit, and heat racing works in countless forms of stock car racing all over the U.S. Having said that, in restrictor plate racing, where the larger the packs get, the better the chance of entertaining racing, splitting the field in two just doesn’t work. It’s even worse when the Duels go 150 miles, leaving teams to spend large amounts of time logging laps before getting down to business. That is, assuming they choose to do that,when the end goal is to protect the primary car and 38 of 42 participants know they’re in the race, the heat is a battle to survive rather than compete.
Multiple drivers Thursday night remarked that single-file racing isn’t just a product of small fields but because drivers have figured this qualifying for the 500 thing out. Again, Hendrick’s front row cars hung out in the back once they lost the lead. Spotters cautioned their drivers to use, well, caution, in racing to the end of each Duel, as they were already in the 500. And in each race, 19 of 21 starters entered knowing they were racing on Sunday.
If NASCAR wants to run heats, they need to run heat races. Get rid of qualifying speed as a means to enter the 500. Shorten the heats to 20 laps and make them urgent. Make the drivers race their way into the 500. Make the Duels matter again.
And on that note, it was one thing to see so many of our readers comment on ticket pricing following Sunday’s Thinkin’ Out Loud (spot-on to discuss that issue). But it was more striking while standing in line Monday night for tickets to the K&N Pro Series East race at New Smyrna that I heard three people in a row in the ticket line upset about the exact same thing. Even the cheapest $55 seat for Sunday’s Clash meant fans paid approximately $1 a lap to see that farce. Who wouldn’t be upset?
Which begs the question: if the point of the Clash and the Duels is to pique interest in Speedweeks and the 500, why make them so inaccessible? Want to sell tickets to the 500? Open the Duels up for $10 general admission like a regular short track show. Get people in the door with a sneak preview of what they’ll see Sunday.
That’s how to whet an appetite (thank you again, Frontstretch comment section, for correcting my spelling).
Best Paint Scheme: McMurray’s No. 40. It’s not the return of the Silver Bullet that Frontstretch’s own Michael Massie was pining for walking through the Cup garage Thursday, but it’s a sharp looking tribute car.
Safe Drivers Discount: Ware’s No. 52 did an excellent Alex Bowman 2018 impression. Problem is, they weren’t trying to lose the draft two laps into the race.
Denny Hamlin Achievement Award: Tifft, for scoring two pit road speeding penalties in his first 18 laps as a Cup driver.
Party Like It’s 2003: Ross Chastain ran the Duels without a sponsor on his No. 15 Chevrolet; based on an unscientific review, if he was to start Sunday’s 500 without one, he’d be the first driver since Tony Raines in 2003 to start the Great American Race with a blank racecar (Frontstretch readers, if you ever wanted to prove one of us wrong, here’s a great chance).
Taylor Swift Award: Johnson. He doesn’t love the drama, it loves him.
Where It Rated: No trip to Daytona Beach is complete without a piping hot fried seafood platter at Our Deck Down Under. Thursday’s race was more like lukewarm Long John Silver’s; palatable if you’re hungry, drunk or craving salt. Thursday’s races had more to them than Sunday’s Clash and showed some hints that Sunday will be a race worthy of kicking off the season.
Dust Off the VCR:
The Great American Race goes green at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX.