Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart won the first Gatorade Duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday.
Stewart was preparing for a last-lap duel to victory against Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, but an accident sent Danica Patrick hard into the inside wall on the backstretch and ended the race under caution.
Patrick was running well in her first Sprint Cup Series event until the last-lap incident, which was triggered when Jamie McMurray hit Aric Almirola who then hit Patrick and sent her for a wild ride through the backstretch grass and into the inside retaining wall.
By winning the race, Stewart will start third in Sunday’s Daytona 500. This is Stewart’s 17th career win at Daytona International Speedway — second most all time behind Dale Earnhardt (34).
But perhaps the bigger winners of the 150-mile race were fourth-place finisher Michael McDowell and fifth-place finisher Robby Gordon, who both earned starting spots for Sunday’s Daytona 500 by being the best “Go or Go Home” drivers not yet qualified.
After a wild Budweiser Shootout race Saturday night, the first Duel race featured a few scrapes. The first came on Lap 9 when Michael McDowell got into the left rear quarter panel of David Gilliand in Turn 1. Gilliland got out of control and wrecked Juan Pablo Montoya and Paul Menard. Brad Keselowski’s car suffered some right-side damage from the incident, but he was able to continue.
The second incident was a single-car crash late in the race, but it had major impact.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip wrecked by himself with nine laps left when he tried to merge back onto the track after leaving pit road. He lost control of his car and hit the wall hard and, as a result, will miss Sunday’s race and put an end to his streak of 25 consecutive Daytona 500 starts.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Waltrip said. “Nothing has ever hurt this bad — and it’s not my body.”
The final crash was Patrick’s, who was already locked into the field for Sunday’s 500.
Coverage of Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins at noon ET on FOX, with the green flag scheduled to wave shortly after 1:29 p.m. ET.