5 biggest lessons from crazy Can-Am Duels at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.

Thursday’s two Can-Am Duel qualifying races are in the books, and the field is set for Sunday’s 58th running of the Daytona 500 (FOX, noon, ET). Here are five things we learned in advance of NASCAR’s biggest race.

5. So far, so good — Rookie Chase Elliott, the pole-sitter for the Daytona 500, did the most important thing he could have done — he kept his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet out of harm’s way, finishing a solid sixth place in Duel 1.

4. Bad moon rising — In both last Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited and Thursday night’s second Can-Am Duel, Martin Truex Jr. got wrecked on the last lap. Neither incident was his fault, but it was frustrating nevertheless. As it was for Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and others who, like Truex, will go to backup cars after being caught in the last-lap crash.

3. Keep digging — In the first Duel, a loose left-rear wheel dropped Ryan Blaney a lap down and in last place, seemingly destined for an awful night. But after a couple of pit stops to fix the problem, Blaney fought his way all the way back to third place. The Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford will be a car to keep an eye on Sunday.

"I think the speed in our car is very strong and we made some friends tonight," Blaney said. "That will help for Sunday."

2. JGR’s Toyotas have speed … but some bad luck, too — As they’ve been throughout Speedweeks, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards have been wicked fast. Hamlin was the only one of the team’s cars in the first Duel and he finished a respectable fifth. As a team from top to bottom, JGR has more speed than anyone.

In the second Duel, Kenseth and Busch combined to lead all but two laps, with Busch taking the victory. But that second Duel is also where the bad news came into play, with Kenseth caught up in that last-lap crash. The No. 20 entered the night locked into the front row for the 500, but going to a backup would send him to the back of the field, and perhaps send to the front row …

1. The man to beat — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the favorite to win his third Daytona 500 on Sunday. And his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet a.k.a "Amelia" has won four times in six starts including a pair of Duels this season and last. And the two times Amelia didn’t win, she finished second and third.

"I was so nervous today about tearing the car up because I know how good it is versus what we have," said Earnhardt after winning the first Duel. "What we have is a capable (backup) car in the trailer, but this thing is special. So I’m real excited." Add to that, depending on where Elliott lines up to start the 500, Earnhardt could find himself starting in the front row on Sunday.

The net result? The competition should be nervous.