The Can-Am Duels at Daytona did not disappoint this year. Throughout the majority of both races, there was action packed racing, two and even three-wide at some points. Like always, there were some cars that stood out and others that finished better than what they ran. That’s restrictor plate racing.

Duel One:

In the opening Duel race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. proved that he will have one of the cars to beat on Sunday in the 58th Annual Daytona 500.

It didn’t take long for the restrictor plate veteran to prove that he had the best car in the first Can-Am Duel. It took him just two laps to take the top spot away from Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott. He held the lead until his pit stop until Lap 40.

The No. 88 car dominated the first Duel as he led 43 of the races 60 laps, but had to overcome adversity in the late stages. With just a handful of laps to go, Earnhardt was shuffled back to sixth while Denny Hamlin as on point.

With just over one lap to go, Earnhardt had to hold off a charging Joey Logano will help from Ryan Blaney from the Wood Brothers, an affiliate of Team Penske. Even with the two drivers pairing up they were unable to pass the No. 88 team.

In his post-race press conference Earnhardt eluded to his car as special and knowing that he has one of the cars to beat.

“That was crazy,” Earnhardt said on the race. “I was so nervous today about tearing the car up because I know how good it is versus what we have. What we have is a capable car in the trailer, but this thing is special. So I’m really excited.”

The defending Daytona 500 winner, Logano, finished second after getting shuffled back after his green flag pit stop. The No. 22 car was aggressive and made dicey moves in-and-out of traffic, much like his teammate Brad Keselowski who finished in a disappointing 13th.

Blaney is headlining into his second career Daytona 500, and as a rookie he stated his case as to why teams should work with him in the actual race. Last season the No. 21 car had one top-five finish coming at Talladega, the other plate track.

“We had a really fast racecar,” Blaney said. “We had a couple of problems early in the race which got us a lap down. Luckily we got a caution at the right point that got us on the lead lap so we could go racing for it.”

One lap prior to the halfway point, Blaney had a loose left-rear tire that the team accidently left loose prior to the 150-mile event. Evidently, the team overcame the bad luck and got a top-five finish.

Kevin Harvick finished fourth after starting in the rear and had a real shot the win while running second with four laps to go. The Sprint Unlimited winner Hamlin rounded out the top five and led 13 laps in the process.

With Blaney finishing in third and a 13th-place finish Michael McDowell came out on top in the race within the race, the race just to make the Daytona 500. On Lap 42, Cole Whitt had a big run on the No. 95 car that when he went to make a move to pass McDowell he overcorrected and spun out, ending his chance at competing in the Great American Race.

The other driver that McDowell had to beat was Josh Wise and he finished in 17th.

“It’s definitely a big thing for our team, Circle Sport-Levin Family Racing, we’re going to have two cars in the Daytona 500 especially for a small team” McDowell said on making the Daytona 500. “To really start out the year well, it’s very important. This is such a huge race.”

Duel Two:

The latter of the two 150-mile races was very tame until the last couple of laps. As Kyle Busch went on to dominate the event, a multi-car pileup on the last lap cost many of top drivers’ valuable starting positions for the Daytona 500.

It all started to go downhill with two laps to go when Casey Mears was running the second position and ran out of gas. The No. 13 car had just been placed into the second position and then ran out of gas, while trying to make a move on Busch.

As the lead pack of 11 cars darted in to Turn 1 on the last lap, Jamie McMurray made a move to try and win the race when he looked to the inside of the No. 18 car. While coming back up the track he clipped the front end of Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet, causing a five car crash, including Matt Kenseth who was scheduled to start on the outside of Row 1 on Sunday.

Also getting in the crash were A.J. Allmendinger, Danica Patrick and Martin Truex Jr.

With Kenseth likely going to a backup car, it will move Busch to the outside of the front row, alongside 20-year-old rookie Chase Elliott.

“I think I get to start on the front row,” Busch said. “I didn’t win this race to qualify myself for the fourth starting position, but with our teammate having trouble there at the end of the race, they’ll have to go a backup car, it looks. Well get the chance to start on the front row. That’s pretty cool.”

The accident looked to be the cause of all drivers going for it and getting the best starting position that they could. However, the end result was that three of the 500 favorites will now start in the rear.

“I was behind it to see it so I couldn’t really tell why the No. 48 went up the racetrack,” Kenseth said. “I was actually just in the process to get out of there and go to the back. I thought we had the best car and we led a lot of laps.”

Kenseth mentioned that this will be the No. 20 team’s third car of Speedweeks as he also crashed in the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday.

In this Duel it was Robert Richardson, Jr. who was able to fall back on his qualifying speed from last Sunday as his teammate Matt DiBenedetto finished the highest out of the cars that needed to race their way in. David Gilliland and Reed Sorenson will miss the 500-mile spectacle.

 “Two weeks ago when I got the call to run this race, I was mowing the hay pastures,” Richardson said. “I’m just very blessed to be here.”

There are three practice sessions for teams to tune up their primary or backup cars to try and win the biggest race in motorsports. The team that is able to adapt to the conditions of the race and keep up with the pace being set will find themselves the winner of the Daytona 500.

Taking over the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet in 2016 is 20-year-old Chase Elliott. Imagine that, just two years out of high school and taking over the ride from NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon.

In 2014, his first full-time NASCAR season, Elliott went out and dominated the NASCAR XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports. He won three races, the most out of all of the XFINITY Series regulars, and secured 42 more points than his closest competitor and teammate Regan Smith.

During the 2015 season, Elliott ran up front for the majority of the year, but was unable to win back-to-back championships. Overall, he had 27 top-10 finishes, more than he had in his championship-winning season. But outside of his win at Richmond in September, he struggled to run as the leader on a consistent basis, leading 236 laps, down from 390 in 2014.

Like all rookies, Elliott will have some bumps in the road in his first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. Joining Elliott as first-year drivers are Brian Scott, Chris Buescher, Jeffery Earnhardt and Ryan Blaney.

Each have a different story behind them, but Elliott’s is the most significant. If he fails in his first campaign, questions will be raised about whether or not he is the right driver to replace Gordon in the elite ride.

One thing is certain, Rick Hendrick believes so.

 It seems like ages ago now that Hendrick put Elliott into some of his equipment, but in reality it was only five years ago and he was just 15 years old. Hendrick is the one who basically told Dale Earnhardt, Jr. that he needed him to fill a position at JR Motorsports, before he had ever even raced in an XFINITY Series event. The legendary team owner believes in the kid, like he does all of his drivers.

The 2016 Sunoco Rookie of the Year class looks to be one of the best in recent years. Sure, there was the rookie class in 2014 that was made up of Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and others. But in terms of raw talent, this one could compete against it as arguably a better overall class, and possibly one of the strongest in recent memory.

One of the obvious goals for the No. 24 team in 2016 is to win the Rookie of the Year Award, something that the team hasn’t faced since the 1993 season when Gordon was a rookie as a part of the “Rainbow Warriors.”

“All of them, I’m sure, I really don’t know,” Elliott told Speedway Digest as to who his biggest threat will be for the award. “I think that there are a lot of good teams and drivers that are going to be hard to beat on that side. But as I’ve said before, if we can go and be the team that we want to be and if I can go and try to do the job that I expect of myself, I think the rest will kind of take care of itself.”

Elliott will be teaming with some of the sport’s best. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 26-time Cup winner Earnhardt and a resurged Kasey Kahne.  

There are other team goals for 2016. Of course, a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth is always a necessity. Since the Chase was implemented in 2004, the No. 24 car has only missed out on the playoffs one time, back in 2005 and has finished in the top 10 in points 22 out of the last 23 seasons.

In order to qualify the Chase, Elliott would most likely need to win a race. A few playoff berths will be given out to the highest drivers in the standings without a win, but a win essentially assures a chance to compete for the championship.

Elliott is not worried about his rookie competition. It’s not that he thinks NASCAR should engrave his name on the trophy now, but the fact that worrying about his competition could always cause turmoil. If he goes out and drives his style, everything will take care of itself.

“I’m definitely not going to show up to the racetrack each week and worry about what the other rookies are doing because I think you’re going to have to focus a lot,” Elliott said. “That’s definitely not going to be my main concern when I show up each week.”

On his down time, Elliott could be seen with one of his closest competitors and rivals in Blaney.  The two have become good friends as they’ve grown up together, though they sit a couple years a part in terms of age. Their fathers have cemented a legacy in which the two youngsters will look to better and add onto the legacy of their last name.

Elliott stated that he doesn’t have a great relationship with any of the rookies except for Blaney. As both drivers have progressed through the ranks of NASCAR, they’ve been able to have a real bond off the track.

“I guess the only other one that I really know or talk to any is Ryan Blaney,” he said. “We’re good friends and he’s really the only one of the rookie guys that I even know at all.”

By many, Elliott is the pre-season favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award and begin his legacy inside of the No. 24 car. If all goes well for him, he will put check marks next to all of his goals at season’s end and call it a successful rookie campaign.

Track time will be important for the team. In five career Cup races, Elliott has experienced some difficulty with a best finish of 16th and an average result of 26.2.

When Kasey Kahne made the move over to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, it was the best career move he had ever made in NASCAR. He was joining a team that had won five out of the last six championships, and in 2011, Hendrick equipment took home the title. It seemed like he was entering a wonderland and the perfect ride to elevate his career.

That wonderland came to a screeching halt this past season when Kahne struggled on the racetrack and was visibly frustrated after missing the Chase for the first time in four seasons as the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

Kahne is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he recorded just three top-five finishes. His top 10 total was down from 11, to 10 in 2015, his lowest since 2010, when he was a part of Richard Petty Motorsports.

But for Kahne, a driver who came into the sport with such high regard and excelled rather quickly, there is no real reasoning as to why he has fallen off the radar. He has been in the same shop as four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon over the past four seasons, and on the same team as six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and multiple race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. 

The No. 5 team hit rock bottom in 2015. After re-aligning himself with former team engineer, Keith Rodden, the team was destined to have instant success, especially with how Rodden elevated Jamie McMurray just a year prior at Chip Ganassi Racing.

In 2015, he lead a career low 66 laps. He also had three DNF’s including a scary incident at Pocono in which he crashed into the pit wall, scurrying members from AJ Allmendinger’s team. But for the majority of the season he was irrelevant when it came to running up front.

“There are different areas that we as a team needed to work on, so we worked on those positions and spots,” Kahne said of changes that occurred over the off-season. “We changed a few people around that we feel will be better for our team morale. Some of the things that I look for in a car and then the other thing is just enjoying what we get to do again.”

Kahne made it clear that last season was the worst he felt inside of a racecar as he was never comfortable on track. He wasn’t able to enjoy the success that his teammates did, all winning a race. It really put his personal morale and the entire team morale down. With racing over the off-season, he believes it will be an increase in momentum heading into 2016.

“I think by going over and racing my Sprint car and racing midgets and doing things over the off-season that I’ve wanted to do for a long period of time kind of was able to start over in a way and feel good about racing cars,” he said. “I think that helped me in the way that I approached this off-season”

2016 will be all about regaining confidence that the Washington native once had. He was unable to gain consistency throughout 2015 and really through his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports. Sure, he finished fourth in the point standings in 2012, but still needed one of the Wild Card positions to make the Chase.

Since joining one of the top teams in motorsports, Kahne was taken the checkered flag, five times. Compare his first four seasons at HMS to his previous four years with other teams, the amount of wins are the same. Even in qualifying the numbers are down as the No. 5 team has only sat on one pole in the last three years.

Change was needed for the new season. Kahne needed a new mindset, and a clear slate before the Daytona 500. With the recent birth of his son, Tanner, Kahne will look to enter the new year with even more of a reason to perform.

He is under contract with HMS through the 2018 season. He doesn’t have to race for his job, but for himself wants to be successful or else he would have a different job. There is so much left for him to achieve inside of a racecar and the first step might be racing more throughout the season.

With recently getting back into a Sprint car, it has urged him to want to race more. He wants to race for his Sprint car team throughout the NASCAR season, if allowed by Rick Hendrick.

Since the death of his friend Jason Leffler in 2013, Kahne has done very little to no dirt racing. In part it was because Farmers Insurance and Hendrick Motorsports didn’t allow him the opportunity to compete outside of NASCAR. With the recent resurgence on dirt, Kahne seems to be amped up heading into the new racing campaign.

Kahne knows that the team needs to be improved if they are to have any success in 2016. The team has been partially rebuilt, and it will be the second season that Rodden and he have worked together as driver and crew chief. The chemistry needs to improve, but he believes that they can outperform from their 2015 numbers.

“As a team we need faster cars,” he said. “It’s not that it’s not all there, it’s what we are putting on the track and what I’m driving and the way I’m driving. The speed’s not there. There are times when I was as fast as anyone this year, but not near enough.

“I want to be at the front for practice, qualifying and reach each week, not just three times a year. We’re better than that and our cars, our team, everybody is better than that.”

Kahne has a history of being on the Chase bubble heading into Richmond, if the team has better equipment, and prepares like every week is its last there is no telling what this team can do. Take for example the 2014 season where it took him until Atlanta to lock himself into the Chase, two races prior to the point reset.

Driving for Hendrick Motorsports, there are no excuses. Kahne needs to achieve success in 2016 or else his first five years with HMS could be called a bust.  

Jimmie Johnson will lead the field to green as he won his first pole of 2015 at Phoenix on Friday. Johnson had not won a pole in the last 58 Cup races, dating back to Charlotte in May of 2014. Coming off of a victory in Texas, the No. 48 is ending the season on a hot streak.

Though he has five wins on the season, Johnson has only won once since the end of May. If he isn’t in the hunt for the championship, he wants to spoil it for all of the teams who are remaining in the Chase.

“We didn’t have the summer that we wanted, but these guys have been working so hard on the No. 48 team,” Johnson said. “I’m very happy to see the progress and the direction things are going. It’s been a little bit everywhere and if we keep doing that, we’ll close the season out the way we want to.”

Johnson stated that the new reconfiguration of the one-mile flat track has been very tough on him. Although on Friday, Johnson was the quickest in opening practice and set a new track record in his qualifying lap at 25.147 seconds.

Kurt Busch was in the top three in all three rounds of qualifying, and was the quickest in round two. However, he came up one position short in a race that the No. 41 team needs to win in order to advance to race for the championship in Homestead.

“You always want to get the pole, it’s a feather in the team’s hat to wear all weekend,” Busch said of being so close to winning his fourth pole of 2015. “For us to be outside pole in the Haas Automation Chevy it means a lot of all the hard work that’s gone into the car and the car showed a lot of speed in race-trim as well.”

It was an unusual third-place qualifying effort for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt has publicly stated that he is a poor qualifier, but in all three rounds his car was steady. He is looking for his first win at Phoenix since 2004.

Carl Edwards is coming into one of his favorite race tracks needing to make up seven points on the cutoff in order to advance to Homestead. On Friday, the No. 19 team had a fourth-place qualifying effort and is looking for his third career win in the Arizona desert.

The current cutoff driver is the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. In a track where Truex has more last-place(2), then top-five finishes(1), the No. 78 team is hoping that a test last month will help them improve on Truex’s career statistics in Phoenix. Truex has been the dark horse all season long, and is looking for a Cinderella ending to advance to race for his first career championship.

“We adjusted quite a bit,” Truex said of his qualifying effort after being just quick enough to advance into round two. “The thing was we knew that we were going to be off that first run just because our car for whatever reason was really bad on stickers. It was like that in practice. After that, the second and third run it was really good.”

Truex believes that his car is better during race runs and expects to be better than fifth on Sunday.

Seven-time Phoenix winner, Kevin Harvick will start eighth on Sunday. Harvick has won all three Phoenix races since joining Stewart-Haas Racing and won in the fall of 2013 behind the No. 29 car. He is the heavy favorite for the 312-lap event and is looking to punch his ticket to Homestead and compete for his second-consecutive championship.

After missing the spring race in Phoenix, Kyle Busch was 10th fastest in qualifying on Friday. The former winner in the desert is looking to clinch a spot to race for his first championship and heading into Sunday he is 11 points ahead of fifth-place.

“We need to be better than 10th,” Busch said. “I’m not so sure that 10th is going to get it done for us. We unloaded really good, better than we have in the past. I feel like as a company we unloaded better. That’s thanks to Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 team for coming out here and giving us a good test. We need to get it where I can run probably seventh or better.”

The only driver that is worry-free this weekend is Jeff Gordon. After being fastest in the first round of qualifying, the No. 24 team faltered to 11th on the speed chart in round three. After Phoenix renamed the track Jeff Gordon Raceway this weekend, Gordon will look to be first at the checkers.

“We’re just trying to get ourselves ready to go battle it out in Homestead, in order to do that we’ve got to be fierce, and aggressive and push hard,” Gordon said of this weekend. “I thought we made gains from practice. It was a solid day for us. We’re just approaching it to go out and win.”

The only Chase drivers to qualify outside of the top 12, was the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. The No. 22 will start from 14th, after the No. 2 will begin Sunday from the 18th position.

Both of these drivers are in “must win” situations in order to advance to Homestead. After sweeping the Contender Round, Logano has not had a good Eliminator Round. After being involved in the incident with Matt Kenseth in Martinsville and the cut tire at Texas, Logano is in a huge hole and the only thing he can do is win at a track that he’s never won at before. Mathematically, Keselowski can still point himself in, but would need an absolute prayer and it’s unrealistic. The No. 2 team’s best shot to advance was last weekend in Texas when they lead 312 laps, but finished second to Johnson.

Both teams were also outside of the top 10 in practice and will need to make adjustments to have race winning cars.

“I wish we could have run a little faster,” Logano said. “We were close, just a little over a hundredth would have put us in the next round. We still need to find quite a bit more speed to go faster. We just didn’t go fast enough.”

If Sunday’s race at Phoenix is anything like last year’s cutoff race it will come down to the last lap in who advances to Homestead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A back flip and a sandwich is what Carl Edwards will have after the Coca-Cola 600. After pitting on a caution with 60 laps left in NASCAR’s longest race, the newest driver at Joe Gibbs Racing was able to save enough fuel to win his 24th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

Edwards held off former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle after leaders Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr., amongst others, headed to pit road within the last 35 laps. In doing so, the Missouri native has scored his first triumph with Joe Gibbs Racing after recording one top 10 in his first 11 races in the No. 19 Toyota. The victory marks Gibbs’ 117th win in the Cup Series, and gives Edwards a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Truex, who led a race-high 131 laps, which is the fifth largest amount of laps led in his career, finished fifth at Charlotte. The Furniture Row Racing team was in position to contend with Hamlin for the win, but after the final pit stop, he was a lap behind Edwards. However, he continues to sit second in points with 11 top 10s in 12 races.

Hamlin had to be sent to the infield medical center following the race after experiencing a migraine headache in the late stages of the race. After short pitting due to a loose wheel, he finished eighth on an evening where he led 53 laps.

Rounding out the top five were Dale Earnhardt, Jr., pole sitter Matt Kenseth and Truex.

Kyle Busch made his return to the Cup Series during the All-Star Race last weekend, but the Coca-Cola 600 was his first time back in a points-paying event. Busch ran inside of the top 15 early on, but struggled with a loose condition. As the race continued, he moved into the top 10, and evidently cracked the top five – running as high as second during the 600-mile race. He finished 11th, which is considered a victory as he told reporters following the race that he experienced no pain throughout the race.

Jimmie Johnson spun twice during the race. Getting lucky on his first spin – similar to Kansas – he was headed back to the front of the pack. However, on Lap 273, the No. 48 car got loose coming off Turn 4, and hit the SAFER Barrier entering pit road. Johnson finished 40th, 30 laps down.

“We came in with an aggressive mindset to bring an aggressive set-up in the car, drive aggressively and take chances,” Johnson said after the second incident. “We just don’t have anything to lose. Unfortunately, we didn’t get long enough into the race for the aggressive set-up to come into play. Another 30/40 laps we would have had the car right where we wanted it.  I just didn’t make it there.”

Running in his final Coca-Cola 600, Jeff Gordon flew in from Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon. Gordon drove the pace car in the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, and finished 15th at Charlotte.