Almirola wins second Bluegreen Vacations Duel in a wild finish; Daly rallies to make Daytona 500 field

After spending a majority of the night engaged in side-by-side battles for the lead, Aric Almirola managed to pull away and beat the field of 21 to win the second of two Bluegreen Vacation Duels at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday, February 16.

The 38-year-old Almirola from Tampa, Florida, led five times for 17 of 60-scheduled laps and managed to fend off late charges coming from Kyle Larson, Austin Cindric and Todd Gilliland in the closing laps to capture his second checkered flag in a Daytona Duel event and commence the 2023 campaign on a strong note after going winless during the previous NASCAR Cup Series season.

The second Duel victory awarded Almirola a handful of championship points and a starting spot on the second row in fourth place for this year’s Daytona 500 as he will contend for his first victory in his 13th career start in the Great American Race.

Prior to the event, Kyle Larson, who claimed a front row starting spot for the 65th running of the Daytona 500 on Wednesday night, started on the pole and was joined on the front row with Aric Almirola. Meanwhile, BJ McLeod dropped to the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments made to his entry.

When the green flag waved and the first Duel event commenced, Larson and Almirola dueled for the lead until Larson received a draft from Chase Briscoe to break away from the pack and have both lanes to his control through the backstretch. As Briscoe moved up to second, Almirola was left to battle Kyle Busch for third place on the outside lane as Larson proceeded to lead the first lap.

During the second lap, the outside lane led by Almirola’s No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang gained ground on Larson entering the frontstretch as Almirola led the following lap by a hair. While Almirola was leading the competition, he could not control both lanes as a pack of competitors led by Larson on the inside lane fought back.

With the event reaching its first five-lap distance, Larson reassumed the lead ahead of a hard-charging Almirola followed by Briscoe, Cindric and Busch while Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott, Ryan Preece, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. were in the top 10.

A lap later and as Larson and Almirola continued to duke for the lead, the first caution of the event and between the two Duels flew when a side window from Justin Haley’s No. 31 Cirkul Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 came off and laid on the backstretch. During the first caution period, nearly the entire field led by Almirola and Larson pitted amid mixed strategies while Haley and BJ McLeod remained on the track. Haley and McLeod would eventually pit prior to the restart and give the top-two spots back to Almirola and Larson. During the caution period, Briscoe and Tyler Reddick, who stalled his car while trying to exit his pit stall, returned to pit road to top off on fuel.

When the race proceeded under green on Lap 10, Larson and Almirola dueled for the lead once again until Larson managed to break away far from the pack after receiving a push from Kyle Busch exiting the backstretch. Shortly after, however, Busch launched his challenge for the lead on Larson as the competitors towards the front battled in a tight pack within two lanes.

Through the first 20 scheduled laps, Busch, who engaged in a series of side-by-side battles against Larson for the lead earlier, was out in front by a hair over Suarez followed by Larson, Almirola and Cindric while Chase Elliott, Corey LaJoie, Todd Gilliland, Truex and rookie Noah Gragson were in the top 10. By then, 19 of 21 starters were separated by two seconds. In addition, Austin Hill was running in a transfer spot to make the Daytona 500 in 16th place while Conor Day, another competitor who was trying to make the 500, was in 20th behind Travis Pastrana, who holds a guaranteed spot to make the main event based on Wednesday’s qualifying speed.

At the halfway mark on Lap 30, Busch continued to lead ahead of Suarez, Larson, Almirola and Cindric while Elliott, LaJoie, Gilliland, Truex and Gragson remained in the top 10. Meanwhile, Haley was in 11th followed by Ryan Preece, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Reddick while Hill, Riley Herbst, Pastrana, Briscoe, Daly and McLeod rounded out the 21-car field.

With less than 25 laps remaining, Busch retained the lead ahead of a bevy of competitors that included Suarez, Larson, Almirola and Cindric while Elliott, LaJoie, Gilliland, Truex and Gragson were running in the top 10. Meanwhile, Hill remained in position to make the Daytona 500 in 15th in between Preece and Reddick while Daly, who lost the draft earlier, was mired back at the rear of the field in 21st place and a lap down.

Then with 20 laps remaining, the caution flew when Suarez bumped and turned Kyle Busch’s No. 8 3CHI Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which was leading, into the outside wall on the backstretch and with heavy damage. Busch’s wreck ignited a multi-car crash that also collected Haley, Preece, Herbst, Pastrana and Hill, who limped his No. 62 Bennett Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 back to pit road but was unable to continue as his hopes of making the Daytona 500 came to an end. With Hill out, Daly, who was a lap down, now found himself in prime position to make the 500.

During the caution period, nearly the entire field led by Suarez pitted mainly for fuel while Briscoe remained on the track, though he eventually pitted after the field did. During the pit stops, Suarez slid through his pit stall as Larson reassumed the lead followed by Almirola and Brad Keselowski.

Down to the final 14 laps of the event, the race restarted under green. At the start, Larson and Almirola battled for the lead with Keselowski, Cindric and the rest of the field keeping the two leaders within reach amid a tight two-lane pack.

With 10 laps remaining, Almirola was leading by a hair over Larson followed by Keselowski, Cindric and Truex while Gilliland, LaJoie, Gragson, Elliott and Hamlin were in the top 10. Soon after, Cindric ignited his bid for the win as he contested against Almirola and Larson for the lead along with Gilliland.

Down to the final five laps of the event and with the competitors towards the front beginning to jostle through two tight-packed lanes, Cindric was out in front by a hair over Almirola followed by Gilliland, Larson and LaJoie as 14 of 21 starters were separated by more than two seconds. By then, Daly was back in 17th place, a lap down but in position of making the Daytona 500.

Then with three laps remaining, Gilliland moved into the lead followed by Almirola, Larson and Cindric as the intensity towards the front crescendoed.

When the white flag waved and the final lap started, Almirola, who gained a run to the outside of Gilliland, was leading by a nose over Gilliland as both competitors battled dead even in front of the pack. Then in Turn 1, Gilliland, whose car was shaking and getting loose, slipped sideways towards the apron following a bump from Larson. Miraculously, Gilliland kept his car straight and continued. He, however, lost his momentum as Almirola pulled away through the backstretch followed by Cindric and LaJoie. While the front-runners formed a long single file line behind Almirola through Turns 3 and 4, they could not gain a draft nor a final lap charge on Almirola as the Floridian managed to cycle back to the finish line and beat Cindric by 0.122 seconds to win and cap off the Duels on a high note.

The second Duel victory marked Almirola’s second career Duel win, his first since 2021 and the fourth Duel victory overall for Stewart-Haas Racing. It also marked his first checkered flag in NASCAR’s premier series since winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July 2021 as he aims to rebound following a disappointing 2022 campaign where he missed the Playoffs.

“I did have my hands full,” Almirola said on FS1. “[Crew chief] Drew [Blickensderfer] said this Smithfield Ford Mustang was going to be fast, but he said I’d probably have my hands full. We kind of went for it from qualifying, put all the speed in the car and kind of sacrificed some handling. As you could see tonight, it was a handful, but man, this is so cool. Daytona’s such a special place to me. I want that [Daytona 500 win] on Sunday. I know Sunday’s the big one. We’re gonna keep focused on that one. The job’s not finished.”

Cindric, the reigning Daytona 500 champion, settled in second behind Almirola in the final running order while Chase Elliott, Keselowski, Corey LaJoie, Larson, Gilliland, Truex, Denny Hamlin and Preece earned top-10 finishes on the track.

Meanwhile, Conor Daly, who came into the Duels with a “one in a million shot” of making the Daytona 500 after failing to post a qualifying lap on Wednesday, crossed the finish line in 17th place, a lap down, and raced his way into the main event. Daly’s accomplishment will enable him to make his second career start in the Cup circuit on Sunday and his first in the Great American Race as the Money Racing Team will compete in the Daytona 500 for a second consecutive season.

Photo by Patrick Sue-Chan for SpeedwayMedia.com.

“We were inherently lucky for the last 36 hours, but we got luck,” Daly said. “I wished I could’ve said that I drove [the car] in on pure pace, but it was crazy. When we went out there, the car was bouncing around. I had no idea what was going on. I thought the drive train was broken and [crew chief] Tony [Eury Jr.] just made it better every time we got lucky with the yellows [flags] to try to get some experience. It is pretty crazy. This race, I’ve watched it for so many years and so much crazy stuff can happen. Thankfully, we were on the right side of the craziness.”

With Austin Hill and Beard Motorsports failing to qualify for the 500, Travis Pastrana, who was eliminated late in the event due to the multi-car wreck that involved Kyle Busch, will implement his qualifying speed set on Wednesday to make the main event.

There were 15 lead changes for six different leaders. The event featured two cautions for nine laps.

Results.

1. Aric Almirola, 17 laps led

2. Austin Cindric, three laps led

3. Chase Elliott

4. Brad Keselowski

5. Corey LaJoie

6. Kyle Larson, nine laps led

7. Todd Gilliland, one lap led

8. Martin Truex Jr.

9. Denny Hamlin

10. Ryan Preece

11. Noah Gragson

12. Daniel Suarez, two laps led

13. Tyler Reddick

14. Justin Haley

15. Chase Briscoe

16. BJ McLeod

17. Conor Daly, one lap down

18. Austin Hill – OUT, Accident

19. Kyle Busch – OUT, Accident, 28 laps led

20. Riley Herbst – OUT, Accident

21. Travis Pastrana – OUT, Accident

With the starting lineup for the 65th annual running of the Daytona 500 set, the main event is set to commence on Sunday, February 20, which will also mark the start of NASCAR’s 75th season of premier series competition. The coverage for the event is scheduled to start at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com

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