While a few things are different at Daytona International Speedway this year, other things remain the same.
A $400 million facelift has made the fan experience better this season. For just the third time on Thursday, the Can-Am Duel (formerly the Twin 125s) was run at night.
In the first race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. dominated the field and then held off Joey Logano to take the first of the 125-mile qualifying races. Earnhardt led 43 of the race’s 60 laps.
Pole sitter Chase Elliott led the first two laps, but his teammate took command on lap three. Earnhardt stayed in front until pit stops began around lap 40.
Denny Hamlin assumed the lead for 13 laps, but Earnhardt made the pass just eight laps from the finish. Hamlin tried valiantly to regain the lead on the final two laps, but NASCAR’s best restrictor-plate racer was able to hold on.
“It’s another win at Daytona for the Earnhardts, adding to the legacy,” he said following the race. “We’re up here in the 50’s now.”
The victory, Junior’s 17th at Daytona came on the 15th anniversary of the death of his father, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on February 18, 2001. Dale, Sr., who won the 500 only once, won 34 times at the Speedway, including the qualifying races and what is now the Coke Zero 400.
Finishing third was Ryan Blaney followed by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. The 20-year-old Elliott, who will start on the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500, finished sixth.
By his victory, Earnhardt will start in the third position on Sunday.
In the second race, Kyle Busch took the lead on lap 25 and went on to victory, but not without some classic Daytona fireworks at the end. The race ended on a yellow flag after a multi-car pileup on the last lap gave Busch the victory.
The defending Sprint Cup Champion took the lead from Matt Kenseth, who led 23 of the first 25 laps. Kenseth, who started the race from the pole position, was one of those cars involved in the last-lap crash.
That means Kenseth will most likely be forced to start Sunday’s Daytona 500 from the back of the field in a backup car. Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex, Jr., both also involved in the wreck, will most likely face the same fate.
Jamie McMurray, who blocked Johnson in a move that triggered the wreck, wound up second followed by Kurt Busch in third, Carl Edwards in fourth and rookie Ty Dillon in fifth.
Two drivers, Matt DiBenedetto and David Gilliland, raced their way into Sunday’s Daytona 500 by way of their ninth and 12th place finishes, respectively. Neither driver owned one of NASCAR’s 36 guaranteed starting slots and had to have strong finishes to get in.
By his victory, Busch will start fourth on Sunday.