NASCAR Cup Series

Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon win Bluegreen Vacations Duels

9 Mins read
Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

While the Daytona 500 qualifying session determines the front row, the starting lineup itself is based on the results of Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel.

Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon went on to win the night’s two races to secure second-row starting spots in Sunday’s 500. For the non-chartered Austin Cindric and Kaz Grala, they qualified for the 500, though the former’s run in Duel #1 was marred by controversy involving fellow open car and Ty Dillon, who missed the race despite being the second-best-finishing such driver in the duel behind Ryan Preece. Meanwhile, Duel #2 saw a late wreck set up a dramatic overtime finish as Dillon passed Bubba Wallace for the win.

With their wins, Almirola and Dillon will officially start third and fourth in the 500, respectively. However, developments during the race involving front-row qualifiers Alex Bowman and William Byron that could force them into backup cars mean the Duel winners could begin the race in first and second.

Duel #1

500 pole winner Bowman led the field to the green alongside Almirola, while Tyler Reddick started at the rear after unapproved adjustments. Cindric, Dillon, and Timmy Hill were the three open cars who had to race their ways into the 500, while Preece had initially locked himself in with his qualifying time.

The field ran side-by-side early, though those in the back opened a third line on the outside. With help from Austin Dillon, Daniel Suárez guided the third line to the front on lap four before beginning to block the lower lanes. Christopher Bell briefly led before battling with Almirola, while Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Denny Hamlin dropped to the apron, presumably to avoid potential chaos. Bowman also followed suit.

By lap ten, Almirola and fellow Ford Joey Logano led the inside while Bell and Cindric were the top two on the outside. Almirola cleared Bell for the lead on lap 13. Further back, Josh Bilicki fell a lap down, pitted, was penalised for speeding, then went to the garage after reporting overheating issues. As a chartered car, Bilicki will still race in the 500, though starting at the back.

Through the twenties on the lap counter, Fords dominated the top four with Almirola leading Logano, Michael McDowell, and Matt DiBenedetto. On lap 31, Bowman ducked onto pit road to address a possible engine problem before returning to the track.

Green-flag stops began on lap 34 with the Fords as the first to pit. Hamlin inherited the lead with Bell in tow before they and their fellow Toyotas followed suit, and the Chevrolets led by Reddick did the same a lap later. Cindric’s qualifying hopes took a hit when he received a speeding penalty; Cody Ware also received a speeding infraction but is chartered. A fueling issue would keep Ware off the pace for the rest of the night.

Cindric was lapped by Almirola and the leaders with 15 laps to go. Hill’s 500 chances also effectively ended when he was put a lap down, putting Dillon in position to make the race provided he beat Preece.

As Almirola continued to lead with five laps remaining, Cole Custer, DiBenedetto, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Kyle Larson attempted to form an inside lane but eventually reassimilated into the outside. A last charge by Logano in turn four failed as Almirola scored his first career Duel victory. Custer spun and hit the wall in turn four.

“This thing was a hot rod,” Almirola said after the race. “I’m so proud of these guys on this race team. […] We’ve got an incredible race car and I can’t wait for the Daytona 500. Thanks to Smithfield and everybody that supports this program. Our Ford Mustang is fast and it’s a great way to kickoff the season.

“[Victory Lane] is a great place to be. I’m just really proud of everybody. This is just step one for the weekend, so we’ve got a great car. We’re gonna have a great starting spot for the Daytona 500 and looking forward to Sunday.”

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Behind them, Preece held off Dillon for fifth. Despite finishing far ahead of Cindric, who ended his Duel in sixteenth and a lap down, Dillon did not make the 500 as the qualifying speed proviso instead fell to Cindric—who qualified nineteenth to Dillon’s thirty-third—while Preece officially advanced as the highest-finishing open car. Cindric, the reigning Xfinity Series champion, will make his Cup début in the 500.

“I get the Bonehead of the Race Award, speeding in the last section of pit road when I nailed everything else the whole night that I didn’t know how to do, so my guys can all have a shot punching me wherever they want to, but I’m obviously really happy to get our Verzon 5G Ford Mustang into the big show,” Cindric stated. “There’s a lot left for me to learn, but racing on the biggest stage against the best drivers is an amazing opportunity.”

“I feel like I did all the hard things correctly tonight, it’s the easy one that I got wrong. I can’t believe I sped on pit road. […] Obviously, it’s the biggest stage in NASCAR and I’ve got a shot to learn how to race against the best for 500 miles. After I lined up behind the #37 (Preece), I knew I had a shot and whether he wanted to move forward or not I was gonna push him no matter what and it was a matter of inches.”

It is Dillon’s first DNQ in his national series career, while Hill misses a Cup race for the first time since Texas in the fall in 2018.

“Unfortunately we have come up short on making this year’s #DAYTONA500,” Hill tweeted. “The disappointment has already set in but I’m extremely honored to have another shot at making the best race in the world. Congratulations to the teams that have made this race, it is an incredible feeling.”

The circumstances behind Dillon’s DNQ raised uproar from fans; particular criticism was aimed at the charter system as some chartered cars that had underperformed compared to the #96 throughout the week will compete in the 500. Others simply questioned the methods that determined Cindric would make the race despite being so far back in the results; Chase Elliott tweeted he was “confused how this happened”, while Bubba posted, “All of us down here scratching our heads over that rule.”

“Wait, so you can be the best finisher of the open cars that aren’t locked in and still miss the Daytona 500 to one that finished a lap behind you? Learn something new every day,” remarked Xfinity driver Robby Lyons.

While the situation sparked much debate on social media, similar instances have occurred in past Duels. In 2006’s first Duel, an era in which the top thirty-five in owners’ points were locked in, Derrike Cope, Mike Skinner, and Kevin Lepage battled to the finish only for all three to miss the race as Bill Elliott (who had already locked himself in on time) was the best-finishing non-guaranteed driver; with Elliott making it on Duel finish, Robby Gordon transferred in via qualifying time before his own Duel finish cycled the qualifier to Kirk Shelmerdine. The 2010 Duels saw Michael Waltrip crash out but make the 500 anyway when the time-qualified Scott Speed secured the transfer spot. In 2016, Ryan Blaney qualified on speed but was also the highest-finishing driver in his Duel, which cycled the finish to McDowell.

Results

FinishStartNumberDriverTeamManufacturerLapsStatus
1210Aric AlmirolaStewart-Haas RacingFord60Running
2420Christopher BellJoe Gibbs RacingToyota60Running
3126Ryan NewmanRoush Fenway RacingFord60Running
41122Joey LoganoTeam PenskeFord60Running
5537Ryan PreeceJTG Daugherty RacingChevrolet60Running
61796Ty Dillon*Gaunt Brothers RacingToyota60Running
785Kyle LarsonHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet60Running
8699Daniel SuárezTrackhouse Racing TeamChevrolet60Running
91434Michael McDowellFront Row MotorsportsFord60Running
101877Jamie McMurraySpire MotorsportsChevrolet60Running
11347Ricky Stenhouse Jr.JTG Daugherty RacingChevrolet60Running
12921Matt DiBenedettoWood Brothers RacingFord60Running
13711Denny HamlinJoe Gibbs RacingToyota60Running
141341Cole CusterStewart-Haas RacingFord60Running
15168Tyler ReddickRichard Childress RacingChevrolet60Running
161033Austin Cindric*Team PenskeFord59Running
171543Erik JonesRichard Petty MotorsportsChevrolet59Running
181900Quin HouffStarCom RacingChevrolet58Running
192066Timmy Hill*MBM MotorsportsFord57Running
20148Alex BowmanHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet56Running
212151Cody WareRick Ware RacingChevrolet56Running
222252Josh BilickiRick Ware RacingFord14Overheating
Bold – Open car that locked in
Underscore – Open car
* – Ineligible for Cup points

Duel #2

In the return of a trend that plagued the 2020 season, the second duel was delayed by rain for nearly three hours. During the wait and in a microcosm of recent times, one of the Air Titans drying the track slid down the banking and the trailer hitch became lodged in the apron, leading to a brief delay to reattach a new blade unit.

Bowman’s team-mate Byron and Wallace comprised the front row for the race; Joey Gase dropped to the rear for unapproved adjustments. Grala, Garrett Smithley, and Noah Gragson were left to fight among each other for the transfer spot, with Gragson and Smithley facing an uphill battle as they had to start at the rear for failing inspection multiple times on Wednesday. Fellow open driver David Ragan was also sent to the back but locked himself in on time.

Wallace led the first lap before Byron reclaimed it on the inside, receiving drafting from Chevrolet brethren Austin Dillon as Wallace and the Toyota-led outside fell back. A middle lane formed after a lap but dissipated by lap four, causing Ragan to sink down the order.

After six laps, Gragson reached the top ten along the outside and was the highest-running open car before Grala and the inside pushed ahead. Smithley followed the outside and would also spend time as the top non-chartered driver.

With the help of fellow Fords Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski, Harvick took the lead on lap 13 while Wallace moved through the order and joined the inside ahead of Byron. Harvick and Wallace ran side-by-side for the next five laps until Wallace got swallowed in the middle lane and had to settle back on the inside. Byron reclaimed first on lap 19, while Cope went a lap down.

Crossing the 20-lap mark, Gragson was tenth and the highest open car. The field subsequently organised into single file along the outside, running that way until the halfway point on lap 30. In an image that may evoke memories of the 1990s, the rainbow-colored #24 of Byron began doing battle with the partly-black #3 of Dillon.

B.J. McLeod pitted on lap 34. A lap later, Chase Briscoe got loose exiting turn two and collected Anthony Alfredo, Grala, Smithley, and McLeod. According to Alfredo, the wreck was triggered due to oil on the track. Despite the wreck, Grala and Smithley remained in the race.

Blaney was the first off pit road ahead of Harvick, while Briscoe, Grala, and Smithley received penalties for pitting too soon and Cope for speeding.

The restart came on lap 40. After Blaney briefly led, Byron and Dillon resumed their battle for first. Wallace ran behind them before being shuffled back again on the outside. Kyle Busch also fell victim when he was sent into a freefall in the middle with ten laps to go.

Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Riding on the outside, Martin Truex Jr. passed Byron for the lead with nine to go; further back, Gragson and Smithley continued to fight for the final transfer position. After two laps, Harvick cut to the inside to take first.

With five laps remaining, the two lanes split down manufacturer lines as the Toyotas of Truex, Wallace, and Busch ran on the top and the Fords of Harvick and Brad Keselowski on the bottom. However, Keselowski and Smithley made contact as the field entered turn one, causing the former to be turned and slam into Gragson before collecting Byron and Ross Chastain.

“Drove my guts out tonight for our team, sponsors, and supporters. Probably went a couple laps early, but the hole opened to transfer and closed when I got there,” Smithley posted on Twitter. “Hate it, but that’s racing. Once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s the #Daytona500.”

The wreck ended Gragson’s hopes of making the 500, an especially heartbreaking development as he and Beard Motorsports were racing in honour of the late team owner Mark Beard. As Byron will likely have to switch to a backup car for the 500, he will surrender his second-place starting spot and start from the back.

“Very thankful for the opportunity to live out my dream,” Gragson tweeted. “I tried my best. Thank you to the Beard family and @Brendan62 (Brendan Gaughan) for letting me drive your race car. Once in a lifetime opportunity. Thanks everyone for the support. We will move on and overcome.”

Overtime conditions were activated due to the accident. Truex and Wallace occupied the top two with Dillon and Busch respectively behind them. Shortly before the green, Kurt Busch quickly dropped to the rear.

A good restart enabled Truex to pull to the lead and get in front of Wallace. Dillon and Harvick committed to the outside while the Toyota trio stayed inside. On the backstretch, Wallace slung past and established a cushion over Busch, but Dillon jumped inside to pass Wallace as they exited turn four to take his first Duel win.

“I was talking to my spotter before the restart, I was like, ‘We got the #4 (Harvick) behind us, he’s been pushing well all night but he had the #12 (Blaney),’ so I know the manufacturer thing was gonna be tough,” Dillon told FS1. “I made a decent block down the backstretch and just a heck of a push through (turns) three and four. I knew Bubba was gonna try and block, but I just whipped the wheel and it worked out well.”

“Lot of mistakes,” Wallace commented after his second-place finish. “Good début, but nothing to be really happy about on myself. It’s okay for drivers to be hard on themselves. That’s how we motivate ourselves to get out and do better.”

Like Preece, Ragan finished eighth to switch his 500 qualification to Duel finish. Despite his wouded vehicle, Grala finished fourteenth to qualify for his maiden 500 on speed.

Results

FinishStartNumberDriverTeamManufacturerLapsStatus
143Austin DillonRichard Childress RacingChevrolet63Running
2223Bubba Wallace23XI RacingToyota63Running
334Kevin HarvickStewart-Haas RacingFord63Running
4818Kyle BuschJoe Gibbs RacingToyota63Running
559Chase ElliottHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet63Running
6912Ryan BlaneyTeam PenskeFord63Running
7177Corey LaJoieSpire MotorsportsChevrolet63Running
8636David RaganFront Row MotorsportsFord63Running
971Kurt BuschChip Ganassi RacingChevrolet63Running
101517Chris BuescherRoush Fenway RacingFord63Running
11132Brad KeselowskiTeam PenskeFord63Running
121419Martin Truex Jr.Joe Gibbs RacingToyota63Running
132053Joey GaseRick Ware RacingFord63Running
141016Kaz Grala*Kaulig RacingChevrolet63Running
151114Chase BriscoeStewart-Haas RacingFord61Running
161813Garrett SmithleyMBM MotorsportsFord61Running
172115Derrike CopeRick Ware RacingChevrolet59Running
182262Noah Gragson*Beard MotorsportsChevrolet56Accident
19124William ByronHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet56Accident
201242Ross ChastainChip Ganassi RacingChevrolet56Accident
211638Anthony AlfredoFront Row MotorsportsFord35Accident
221978B.J. McLeod*Live Fast MotorsportsFord35Accident
Bold – Open car that locked in
Underscore – Open car
Italics – Competing for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for Cup points
1187 posts

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History major at San Jose State University and lifelong motorsports fan who covers NASCAR and the Stadium Super Trucks.
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