Daytona 500 pole winner Chase Elliott put an exclamation on his qualifying effort with a victory in Thursday night's first Can-Am Duel at Daytona International Speedway.
Elliott passed second-place starter Brad Keselowski for the lead on Lap 37 and held it the rest of the way-through a wreck that altered the positions of the two Open Team drivers trying to race their way into the field for the 59th running of the Great American Race.
In the second Duel, defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin got a huge push from Austin Dillon and passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the next-to-last lap to win the race by .214 seconds over Clint Bowyer, who was competing for the first time in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
Earnhardt, making his return to competition after missing the last 18 events of 2016 because of a concussion, was shuffled back to sixth at the finish behind Kurt Busch in third, AJ Allmendinger in fourth, and Austin Dillon in fifth.
Earnhardt led 53 of the 60 laps, and for most of the race appeared likely to join Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, as a Duel winner. But Elliott prevailed where Earnhardt fell victim to a freight train in the outside lane.
"I just had a lot of steam under the hood, really," said Elliott, who won his first race in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car. "I think that was the biggest thing. The temperatures tonight being kind of cool, it really suited our car well. Just a great way to start the season. I know it's just a Duel win. We wished it counted towards the Playoffs.
"We would rather it be on Sunday, but at the same time it means a lot to me. It means a lot to our team. It means a lot to NAPA and having this car in NAPA colors tonight... We're excited about Sunday. I have a great car."
Even though Elliott didn't get credit for an official win, he did score 10 points for the victory-the first time since 1971 that points have been awarded in the Duel.
Earnhardt was a sitting duck when Hamlin made his move on the penultimate lap with a line of cars behind him.
"I don't know what I could have done differently to defend that," said Earnhardt, who was denied a third straight Duel victory. Once I heard the No. 3 (Dillon) was clear on the outside, I knew they was going to have a big run. Denny is so smart, and he knows what he's doing out there. He's one of the better plate racers out there.
"Any which way I would have went, he was going to go the other way and probably get by me. I was hoping Austin might push us a little bit since he drives a Chevy; but I don't know if I would have done it any different than he did, either."
Hamlin was glad Dillon's Chevy was there to give the No. 11 Joe Gibbs racing Toyota the decisive push.
"We definitely had a strong car, but so much of that race was single file, and so it was really tough to show what we could do in the pack once we got two and three wide," said Hamlin, who worked his way back to the front after a penalty for rolling through too many pit boxes under a competition caution on Lap 27. "But it looked like our car could make some really good moves and got a great push from the 3 (Dillon) there at the end.
"It looked like our cars worked really, really well together there, so we'll keep that in mind when I need somebody to draft with in the 500. Great job by the team. The car was great."
On Lap 49 of the first Duel, the two drivers trying to race their way into the field, Corey LaJoie and Reed Sorenson, were running in heavy traffic, with LaJoie trailing Sorenson as the cars sped through the tri-oval. Contact from LaJoie's Toyota on the rear bumper of Sorenson's Camry sent Sorenson spinning into the Chevrolet of Paul Menard.
Both Sorenson and Menard slid through the large paved area just past the entrance to the Daytona road course, with Sorenson slamming into the SAFER barrier to the inside of Turn 1. The crash eliminated Sorenson from the race.
With an 18th-place finish, LaJoie locked himself into the 500 as the highest finisher among the open drivers in his Duel.
Sorenson was understandably upset by the wreck and by having to wait for the second Duel to see if he would make the field on speed as the third-fastest open qualifier. But Sorenson was disappointed for a second time when Canadian DJ Kennington nipped Elliott Sadler at the stripe by .039 seconds to earn the final spot in the race and knock Sorenson out.
Sadler was already in the 500 by virtue of his qualifying speed from last Sunday's time trials.
"I really do feel bad about Reed," LaJoie said. "I just tried to fill a hole, and it was getting down to it, and I probably did have position on him...
"But, man, when I'm trying to get into the Daytona 500, if my mom was in that spot, I'd probably wreck her, too. I'm racing on Sunday!"
NASCAR Wire Service