Using the side draft on the outside lane to his advantage, Aric Almirola held off a late charge from Christopher Bell and Joey Logano to win the first Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday, February 11, for his first NASCAR Cup Series victory across Daytona Speedweeks.
The lineup for the first duel event was based off of the Daytona 500 pole position qualifying session on Wednesday, February 10, where the odd-numbered qualifiers in their respective order competed. With that, Alex Bowman, the pole-sitter for the 2021 Daytona 500, started on pole position and was joined on the front row with Aric Almirola. Tyler Reddick dropped to the rear of the field due to a transmission change, which was noted as unapproved adjustments.
When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Bowman and Almirola battled against one another with the field fanning out to two lanes and running close to one another in the draft. By the time the field returned to the tri-oval, Almirola led the first lap by a nose on the outside lane.
Through the backstretch, Almirola pulled ahead and was able to retain the lead with Christopher Bell tucked in behind him while Bowman continued to lead the bottom lane.
The following lap, Daniel Suarez, racing for Trackhouse Racing Team, formed a third lane on the outside lane to grab the lead from Bowman and Almirola. Past the start/finish line, he cleared the field to retain the lead while the field fanned out to three lanes. While the field continued to race in a tight three-wide pack entering the backstretch, Denny Hamlin dropped to the rear of the field to preserve his primary car.
By the fifth lap, Bell, making his first Cup start with Joe Gibbs Racing, muscled his No. 20 DeWalt Toyota Camry into the lead on the outside lane followed by Austin Cindric and Almirola. Almirola was able to lead the following lap before Bell reassumed the top spot as both competitors battled against one another for the lead and ahead of the pack.
Through the first 10 laps of the first duel event, Almirola was out in front on the inside lane while Bell kept the competition close on the outside lane. Joey Logano was in third followed by Cindric and Ryan Newman. Tyler Reddick, Michael McDowell, Jamie McMurray, Cole Custer and Kyle Larson were in the top 10. By then, Ty Dillon, needing to race his way into the Daytona 500 in a non-chartered entry, was in 11th, seven spots below Cindric.
By Lap 16, Almirola continued to lead followed by Logano and Newman while Bell, the first car on the outside lane, was locked into a battle with Michael McDowell. By then, Ty Dillon drew himself alongside Cindric in a battle for a transfer spot for Sunday’s 500.
The following lap, the top-five competitors on the inside lane led by Almirola pulled ahead while Bell, who was complaining of temperature issues due to a stuck debris on his car, continued to battle on the outside lane.
By Lap 20, Almirola continued to lead Logano, Newman, McDowell and Ty Dillon, all of whom pulled away from the outside lane.
Meanwhile, Ryan Preece, who was guaranteed a starting spot for the 500 based on his qualifying speed, was battling for a spot in the top 15 while Bowman was back in 19th in a conservative move to preserve his pole-winning car for the 500.
Shortly after, Almirola moved to the outside lane while retaining the lead over a bevy of competitors, including Logano, McDowell, Matt DiBenedetto, Denny Hamlin, Bell, Cindric, Reddick, Timmy Hill and Newman. In addition, the field settled into a long single-file lane on the outside lane.
When the field reached the halfway mark on Lap 30, it was Almirola who was still at the front of a bevy of competitors running in a single-file lane behind him. Logano was still in second place followed by McDowell, DiBenedetto, Hamlin and Bell. Cindric was in seventh and in a transfer spot while Timmy Hill and Ty Dillon, the other two non-charter competitors currently not in the 500, were in ninth and 17th. Reddick and Suarez were in the top 10.
Shortly after, Bowman peeled his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE off the racing groove and to pit road, where his crew lifted the hood on his car. By the time he returned to the track, he lost two laps to the leaders, though the car continued to run under power.
A few laps later, pit stops under green commenced as leader Almirola and a bevy of Ford competitors pitted. The following lap, a handful of Toyota drivers and Ford driver Timmy Hill pitted. The Chevrolet drivers were the next to pit the following lap. Following the pit stops, early disaster struck for Cindric , who was forced to serve a drive-through penalty through pit road for speeding on pit road.
With 23 laps remaining, Almirola cycled his way back into the lead ahead of Logano, DiBenedetto, Newman and Ty Dillon, who was in the transfer spot to make the 500.
Under 20 laps remaining, Almirola kept the field behind with the lead while Hamlin started to form another lane on the inside, though he was able to close the gap to the leaders on the outside lane.
Down to the final 10 laps of the race, Almirola was still out in front over Logano, DiBenedetto, Newman and Ty Dillon. Bell was in sixth followed by Cole Custer, McMurray, McDowell and Ryan Preece while Hamlin was in 11th ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Larson, Suarez, Reddick and Erik Jones. By then, Hill and Cindric were in 17th and 18th as both were long behind Ty Dillon for a transfer spot to the 500.
Not long after, the field fanned out to two lanes as names like Hamlin, Stenhouse, McMurray, Bell and DiBenedetto made moves on the inside lane. A few laps later, Bell and Hamlin made their way into third and fourth on the outside lane, moving DiBenedetto to the inside lane. Through all of this, Almirola continued to lead followed by Logano.
With five laps remaining, Almirola retained the lead on the outside lane followed by Logano, Bell, Hamlin and Newman while Ty Dillon was in sixth. In addition, Custer formed a lane on the inside lane with drafting help from DiBenedetto.
Down to the final two laps of the race, the field continued to remain in a single-file lane with Almirola out in front ahead of Logano, Bell, Hamlin, Newman, Ty Dillon, McDowell, Preece, Suarez and DiBenedetto.
At the start of the final lap, Almirola remained as the leader. Through Turn 1 and the backstretch, he was still leading while Bell closed in on the bumper of Logano as both were forming a run on Almirola for the win. Entering Turn 3 and with Custer spinning and making contact against the outside wall, Logano made a move beneath Almirola’s No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang in an attempt to take the lead, but Almirola was able to side-draft Logano’s No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Mustang to retake the lead. At the finish line, Almirola was able to beat Bell by 0.041 seconds to grab the checkered flag and win.
With his victory, Almirola will start in third place for Sunday’s Daytona 500. He also made his first appearance in victory lane in the Cup circuit since winning at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2018.
“[Crew chief] Mike Bugarewicz and all these guys on this team built me an incredible Ford Mustang,” Almirola said on the frontstretch on FS1. “What a way to kick off our 10th season together with Smithfield. They’ve been an incredible partner of mine. Great way to start Speedweeks. This thing’s really fast. I can’t wait till Sunday. Proud of everybody back at the shop…It’s been a long time since I got to sit here and do an interview at the start/finish line.”
Bell settled in second place followed by Newman, Logano and Preece.
For Preece, he edged Ty Dillon at the finish line by approximately 0.040 seconds to claim a transfer spot based on his duel finish. Because Preece, who had qualified for the 500 based on his qualifying speed a day earlier, was able to improve his starting spot for the 500 and claim a transfer spot on the track, Cindric, who finished 16th, was awarded the final transfer spot into the 500 based on his qualifying speed.
With the late turn of events, Cindric will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“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,” Cindric said on FS1. “I’m really happy to get the Verizon 5G Ford Mustang into the big show. A lot for me left to learn, but racing on the biggest stage against the best drivers, it’s an amazing opportunity.”
Ty Dillon and Timmy Hill, both of whom finished sixth and 19th, failed to qualify for the 500.
Larson, Suarez, McDowell and McMurray finished in the top 10 following the first duel event. Hamlin fell back in 13th place after running out of fuel on the final lap.
There were nine lead changes for five different leaders. The race featured no cautions.
1. Aric Almirola, 52 laps led
2. Christopher Bell, three laps led
3. Ryan Newman
4. Joey Logano
5. Ryan Preece
6. Ty Dillon
7. Kyle Larson
8. Daniel Suarez, two laps led
9. Michael McDowell
10. Jamie McMurray
11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
12. Matt DiBenedetto
13. Denny Hamlin, one lap led
14. Cole Custer
15. Tyler Reddick, two laps led
16. Austin Cindric, one lap down
17. Erik Jones, one lap down
18. Quin Houff, two laps down
19. Timmy Hill, three laps down
20. Alex Bowman, four laps down
21. Cody Ware, four laps down
22. Josh Bilicki – OUT, Overheating
The second Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona International Speedway is underway. Following both Duel events, the overall starting grid for the 2021 Daytona 500 scheduled on Sunday, February 14, will be set, with the event to occur at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX.