Starting dead last among the 25 cars in Thursday night’s first Budweiser Duel at Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed little time to begin a serious charge toward the front.
And that’s where he finished.
"We knew the car was really fast when we got on the track Sunday with the car," said Earnhardt, who on Sunday will aim for his second consecutive Daytona 500 win and third overall in The Great American Race. "I’ve had cars that have been real fast in the single‑car runs and not draft well, then I’ve had cars that run real slow by themselves and draft awesome.
"It finishes a lot of moves. It kind of surprised me. It does a couple things that surprised me out there in the race. So I felt like the car made the job a lot easier."
Ty Dillon finished 16th, earning the final transfer spot for Sunday’s Daytona 500 where Earnhardt will start third by virtue of Duel One win.
Also racing their way into the Daytona 500 by virtue of their finishing positions in the Duel were Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Landon Cassill, Cole Whitt, Paul Menard, Michael McDowell, J.J. Yeley, Michael Annett and Kyle Larson.
"It means so much," said Dillon, the youngest grandson of team owner Richard Childress. "It’s hard to explain. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid watching my grandfather’s cars race."
Starting alongside Daytona 500 pole winner Gordon on Row 1, Kenseth wrestled the lead from Gordon on the first lap and held the top spot until the race’s first caution on Lap 17 for a blown engine from Casey Mears’ car — which was running just ahead of Tony Stewart on the track.
During the pit stops on the next lap, everyone except four drivers took fuel only. Lining up alongside Gordon again when the race restarted at Lap 23, Kenseth quickly moved back ahead of the pack with Gordon settling in behind him in second.
Five laps later, the caution flag waved again when AJ Allmendinger and Johnny Sauter collided on the entry to the tri-oval as Sauter spun through the grass and Allmendinger suffered significant damage with sparks shooting out from under his car.
Allmendinger — a 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup driver — and Sauter both entered the race not guaranteed of transferring into the 500, and their fate remained unsealed with Saturday night’s second Duel qualifier still to be run.
"The 47 (Allmendinger) just got us there in the left-rear quarter panel," Sauter said. "That’s a bummer for these guys. Just a bummer deal. I don’t know. It’s unfortunate."
Allmendinger was visibly frustrated after exiting his badly damaged car.
"Just disappointed," Allmendinger said. "We were fast. It was fun running up front. I just got stuck in the middle there. I don’t know if I moved up there and got the 83 (Sauter) or what happened. If I did, it’s my fault. I was trying to stay out of trouble, and I got put in the middle. I was trying to bail out of the middle. I don’t want to be there. If I got the 83; that’s my bad. That’s the way this racing is."
A third and final caution flag waved when Trevor Bayne’s Roush Fenway Racing Ford fishtailed and slid up into the wall with nine laps to go.
That set up the five-lap dash to the checkered flag, with Earnhardt pulling ahead of Gordon on the restart and holding on for the victory.
Eight drivers in Duel One — Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Aric Almirola, Logano, Kevin Harvick and Stewart — were already locked into the Daytona 500 before the qualifying race began.