Florida native Aric Almirola drove to a convincing victory in the opening Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona qualifying race Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Almirola's No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford led a dominating 52 of the 60 laps and held off Christopher Bell’s No 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota by a mere .041-seconds for the Tampa native’s first victory in the Daytona 500 field-setting race.
Ryan Newman, who was involved in a frightening last lap crash in last year’s Daytona 500, finished third, followed by Joey Logano and Ryan Preece, whose fifth place effort was important regarding the transfer positions into the 40-car Daytona 500 lineup.
Preece edged Ty Dillon by a scant .04-second at the finish line to race his way into the Daytona 500. That gave reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric a starting bid based on qualifying speed - despite his 16th-place finish in the Duel – and sent Ty Dillon home.
Three of the four transfer position were evident after the first Duel - with Preece, Cindric, and David Ragan (who qualified on speed). Another will be determined in the second Duel.
“First of all, I get the bonehead of the race award for speeding on the last section of pit road when I nailed everything else the whole night that I didn’t know how to do," the Team Penske driver Cindric said of receiving a speeding penalty after a mid-race pit stop.
“I’m obviously really happy to get the Verizon 5G Ford Mustang into the big show. Obviously, a lot for me left to learn, but racing on the biggest stage against the best drivers, it’s an amazing opportunity."
The Fords – specifically Almirola - dominated Duel 1, spending most of the race bumper-to-bumper in varying order out front. Almirola and Logano, the 2015 Daytona 500 winner ran 1-2 for most of the race. There were nine lead changes among five drivers.
After the race, the Tampa, Fla. native Almirola smiled and mentioned the good run for Tampa sports – a nod to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl win last week.
“Great way to start Speedweeks," Almirola said. “This thing is really fast and I can’t wait until Sunday. Just proud of everybody back at the shop, Doug Yates and Ford Motor Company all of our partners.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to sit here and do an interview at the start/finish line.
And he added a message for FOX Sports race announcer, Kansas City football fan Clint Bowyer, “Things are going right for Tampa Bay, right Clint Bowyer.”
Daytona 500 pole-winner Alex Bowman played it safe early in the race, hanging toward the rear initially. He ultimately had to pit several times for his crew to look under the hood of his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He finished 20th out of 24 cars in his race, four laps down.
Two-time defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who is trying to become the first driver in history to win three consecutive versions of NASCAR’s Great American Race, finished 13th. He had to push his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota back into the pits after the race because he ran out of fuel on the final lap - after taking the white flag in fourth position.
Kyle Larson, who is making his first start in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5, finished seventh. Daniel Suarez finished eighth in the No. 99 Chevrolet marking his Trackhouse Racing team’s debut. and Erik Jones finished 17th in his first Daytona points race with Richard Petty Motorsports.