Aric Almirola prevailed in the second Duel race Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway after a frantic back-and-forth battle in the final laps.
Almirola broke free off Turn 2 on the final lap when Todd Gilliland got out of shape on the bottom lane. Gilliland was being shoved by Kyle Larson when he nearly got turned around. The break in momentum allowed Almirola to be pushed clear into the lead by Austin Cindric.
“I did have my hands full,” Almirola said. “Drew [Blickensderfer, crew chief) said this Ford Mustang was going to be fast, but he said I would probably have my hands full. We kind of went for it in qualifying and put speed in the car and sacrificed some handling, and as you could see tonight, it was a handful, but, man, this is so cool.
“Daytona is such a special place to me. I grew up sitting in those grandstands dreaming about racing here. I want that one on Sunday, though. My boss up in the booth [Tony Stewart] during that first Duel, he said, I’ve won this race three times, but yet to do it on Sunday. I know Sunday is the big one. We’re going to keep focused on that one. The job is not finished.
“Just really proud. So thankful. I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be retired. This is awesome.”
Almirola, Cindric, and Gilliland swapped the lead and lanes over the final 10 laps. Cindric led the way with four laps to go, pushed to the lead by Gilliland before the two jumped to the bottom lane.
The door opened for Gilliland when Cindric swung to the outside to block Corey LaJoie on the backstretch with three laps to go. Almirola then jumped to the outside of Gilliland coming to the white flag and the two were side-by-side before Gilliland got sideways in Turn 2.
Almirola led Cindric and Chase Elliott across the finish line. Brad Keselowski finished fourth and LaJoie finished fifth.
Larson finished sixth and Gilliland ended up seventh. Martin Truex Jr. finished eighth, Denny Hamlin ninth and Ryan Preece 10th.
Conor Daly finished 17th and earned the final spot in the Daytona 500. It was not an ideal night for Daly and The Money Team Racing, as Daly fought an ill-handling car before the green flag and fell one lap down midway through the race. But a multi-car crash on the backstretch with 20 laps to go changed Daly’s fortune. Kyle Busch being turned by Daniel Suarez started the crash, but it the critical part from Daly’s standpoint was that Austin Hill – whom Daly needed to finish ahead of – was involved.
Austin Hill, one of the drivers needing to race his way in, is collected in this crash and goes to the garage.
It opens the door for Conor Daly to make it in. #Daytona500 pic.twitter.com/NXGMOyCum7
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) February 17, 2023
As Busch was spinning and other drivers made evasive maneuvers, Hill was hit from behind by Travis Pastrana and turned to the right. Hill collected Riley Herbst and damaged the right side of his Chevrolet. Beard Motorsports could not fix Hill’s car in the allotted time on the DVP clock, ending their race and giving Daly the Daytona 500 spot.
There were 15 lead changes among six drivers and two caution flags in the second Duel race. Busch led the most laps (28) before the crash.
It is the second victory in a Daytona 500 qualifying race for Almirola.
1. (2) Aric Almirola, Ford, 60.
2. (4) Austin Cindric, Ford, 60.
3. (7) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 60.
4. (9) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 60.
5. (20) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 60.
6. (1) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 60.
7. (17) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 60.
8. (11) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 60.
9. (13) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 60.
10. (8) Ryan Preece, Ford, 60.
11. (14) Noah Gragson #, Chevrolet, 60.
12. (6) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 60.
13. (10) Tyler Reddick, Toyota, 60.
14. (15) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 60.
15. (3) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 60.
16. (18) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 60.
17. (21) Conor Daly(i), Chevrolet, 59.
18. (16) Austin Hill(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 41.
19. (5) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, Accident, 40.
20. (19) Riley Herbst(i), Ford, Accident, 40.
21. (12) Travis Pastrana, Toyota, Accident, 40.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 151.813 mph.
Time of Race: 0 Hrs, 59 Mins, 17 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.122 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 2 for 9 laps.
Lead Changes: 15 among 6 drivers.
Lap Leaders: K. Larson 1;A. Almirola 2-4;K. Larson 5;A. Almirola 6-10;K. Larson 11;K. Busch 12-13;K. Larson 14;K. Busch 15-40;D. Suarez 41-42;K. Larson 43-45;A. Almirola 46;K. Larson 47-48;A. Almirola 49-54;A. Cindric 55-57;T. Gilliland 58;A. Almirola 59-60.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Kyle Busch 2 times for 28 laps; Aric Almirola 5 times for 17 laps; Kyle Larson 6 times for 9 laps; Austin Cindric 1 time for 3 laps; Daniel Suarez 1 time for 2 laps; Todd Gilliland 1 time for 1 lap.