DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Aric Almirola won the first Daytona 500 qualifying race Thursday night to put a Ford from flagship Stewart-Haas Racing in the second row of NASCAR’s season-opening spectacular.
Almirola held off a charge from Joey Logano, who pulled alongside Almirola on the final lap of the first 150-mile race at Daytona International Speedway. Christopher Bell waffled briefly on which driver he wanted to push and first seemed to choose Logano before dipping down behind Almirola.
It gave Almirola the shove he needed for his first victory in a qualifying race at Daytona.
“Things are going right for Tampa Bay,” Almirola said about his hometown Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman and William Byron put a pair of Chevrolets on the front row Wednesday night for Sunday’s season-opening race. Almirola will be on the second row with the winner of the second Duel.
Austin Cindric earned the one “open” spot in the 500 that was up for grabs in the first qualifying race. Eight drivers came to Daytona trying to claim four available spots in the 40-car field. David Ragan and Ryan Preece claimed the first two in Thursday’s time trials, leaving one spot in each of the Duels.
Cindric was attempting to qualify for his first Cup race, but the Xfinity Series champion was flagged for speeding on his final pit stop. It put him a lap down and needing Preece to be the highest-finishing open driver to get the 500 spot.
Ty Dillon looked like he was headed to the Daytona 500, trying to get Gaunt Brothers Racing into the 500 after the team missed the race last year with Daniel Suarez. Dillon is looking for a full-time job this year and through a budding relationship with Toyota had a chance at racing into the 500 for Gaunt.
Dillon was in a bottom lane that came upon two-time defending 500 winner Denny Hamlin as he was trying to coast on gasoline fumes to the finish. That lane had to slow and swerve around Hamlin, allowing Preece with a push from Ryan Newman to pass Dillon.
“Some days it’s your day, I guess,” said Cindric, who found Dillon on pit road and shook his hand after the finish.
Bowman, meanwhile, feared he was on the verge of an engine failure and drove the 500’s pole-sitting Chevrolet to pit road 29 laps from the finish.
“I don’t want to keep running it,” said Bowman, who instead gave the No. 48 crew the chance to save his starting position. If Hendrick Motorsports has to change the engine, Bowman will forfeit the top starting spot in the Daytona 500 and fall to the back of the field.
Crew chief Greg Ives can make a pre-emptive engine change before Sunday or gamble the one in the car now can go the distance. Winning the pole for NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl is prestigious, but actual starting position matters very little in a 500-mile race at Daytona.