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Drama, Disaster, Aggression: 2024 Daytona Duels Deliver, & That’s a Good Sign For 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Thursday’s (Feb. 15) Daytona 500 qualifying races have lost some of their luster in recent years. Thirty-six locked-in spots combined with drivers playing it safe to save their primary car have often made this prep for the Great American Race a great American snooze.

Not this time around.

The NASCAR Cup Series racked up a whopping 28 lead changes in two competitive Bluegreen Vacations Duels, easily the most since the tandem drafting package was used at this superspeedway back in 2011. There were a number of surprises who ran near the front, from Riley Herbst to BJ McLeod, plus a last-corner pass by Jimmie Johnson to prevent a surprising DNQ and two Duel winners who led only the final lap of the race.

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Christopher Bell Scores Daytona Duel 2 Victory, Kaz Grala Earns Final Daytona 500 Spot

Oh, and the reigning Cup champion Ryan Blaney started his title defense on fire, then came out firing after a wild crash wiped him out in the second Duel.

“I’m pissed,” Blaney said after getting hooked hard right into the outside wall in the tri-oval. “I’m sick of getting right reared here by someone else’s awful push. … Did everything right tonight, and now we need to work our ass off these next two days.”

There was a little bit of everything in these Duels, side-by-side action often reserved for when the green flag falls in Sunday’s main event. It was hard to pin the aggression on any one thing. Noah Gragson theorized saving fuel kept the draft a little more competitive. New body styles for Ford and Toyota, especially Toyota (which swept both Duels), may have allowed them to draft better. Tyler Reddick even thought the points for these races (10 for his win) might have made a difference with drivers thinking playoffs.

Keep in mind it’s also the third year of the Next Gen car. As is often the case with the superspeedway package throughout the sport’s long history, drivers tend to figure these things out the longer we go.

To be fair, not everybody felt so warm and fuzzy about the handling package.

“Man, what a frustrating race,” Kyle Busch said after turning William Byron to start the Blaney wreck. “Just sitting in line — saving fuel, stuck on the bottom, can’t go anywhere. You get back in line … you want to go forward. We were taking the momentum, whichever way the momentum was coming, and just ended up wrecking.”

But Busch appeared to be in the minority, a healthy crowd for the Duels witnessing strong competition throughout. And even with only six unchartered cars vying for four spots left on the grid, suspense lasted through the final seconds as both McLeod and JJ Yeley gave spirited efforts in vastly underfunded cars to make the field.

“I just have such a better appreciation for what many have gone through to race in,” Johnson said after sweating it out. ” I have been so fortunate for so many years.”

Johnson was one of several big winners in the Toyota camp, joining Reddick — who recovered from a spectacular save heading to pit road — and Duel 2 winner Christopher Bell. What a surprising turnaround for the Camry camp, none of whom posted a single-lap qualifying speed inside the top 20 Wednesday night.

“One thing that … the Toyota group [focused on with] this car was to make them push a little bit better so that whenever you did attach, it wouldn’t make the car getting pushed so squirrelly,” Bell explained. “I think they accomplished that. We were able to push very successfully.”

See also
Tyler Reddick Wins 1st Daytona Duel, Jimmie Johnson Squeezes Into Daytona 500

Their teamwork was evident on a night Ford took a step back. After sweeping the front row for the 500, the manufacturer that has had the most cohesion here the past few years struggled to keep it together down the stretch. And arguably its two fastest cars, Austin Cindric and Harrison Burton, fought each other on the final lap instead of pushing in tandem toward the front.

“When I checked up, he had to go his own way,” Burton explained on Cindric.

And what about Chevrolet? NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott snuck into a very invisible second place in Duel 1 and has himself a strong starting spot for the race. Rookies Zane Smith and Carson Hocevar slotted inside the top six in their races.

Storylines were plentiful on a night well over half the field could have drafted their way to victory lane. Daytona’s Duels delivered on a scale not seen in recent memory.

If that’s a sneak preview for Sunday, we’re in for one memorable 500.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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