Denny Hamlin passes Dale Earnhardt Jr. late for victory in Can-Am Duel Race No. 2

Defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with two laps to go to win the second Can-Am Duel qualifying race Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin used a push by the Chevrolet of Austin Dillon to make the race-winning pass.

“Great FedEx Toyota, great car,” said Hamlin. “Got a great push there from Austin. We worked really well together the entire race. I’ll keep that in mind in the (Daytona) 500.”

Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch finished second and third, respectively, behind Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, as Earnhardt faded to sixth on the last lap.

“I don’t know what I could have done differently to defend that,” said Earnhardt, who led 53 of 60 laps. “… Ain’t much you can do about it. It’s not really defendable. Good job by Denny.”

“Just super impressed with this team,” added Bowyer, who had a strong run in his first race with SHR.

Earnhardt, who on Sunday qualified second for the Daytona 500, started the second Duel on the pole in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. It was Earnhardt’s first race since last July, when he was sidelined by a concussion for the entire second half of the NASCAR season.

Earnhardt took the early lead, but was quickly challenged by last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Denny Hamlin, who pushed the issue on the high line, taking the lead on Lap 3. The two traded the lead early on, the competition fierce in the opening stage of the race.

But Hamlin fell back and Earnhardt firmly held onto the top spot, leading 25 of the first 27 laps before the scheduled competition caution.

When the race restarted on Lap 31, Ryan Blaney led briefly, but Earnhardt quickly reassumed the point.

Then, drama as David Ragan tagged Jimmie Johnson, who in turn hit Blaney, with Johnson and Blaney both suffering damage that took them out of contention.

A flat tire on Johnson’s car brought out a caution on Lap 48, with the race restarting with nine laps to go.

Hamlin quickly moved to second place and set after Earnhardt as the laps wound down.

With 2 laps to go, Hamlin got a run on the high line and went into the lead.

On the final lap, Hamlin was able to hold on, while Earnhardt got hung out and fell back to sixth.