Florida native Aric Almirola drove to a convincing victory in the opening Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona qualifying race Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford led a dominating 52 of the 60 laps and held off Christopher Bell’s No 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota by a mere 0.041-seconds for the Tampa native’s first victory in the DAYTONA 500 field-setting race.
Ryan Newman, who was involved in a frightening last lap crash in last year’s Daytona 500, finished third, followed by Joey Logano and Ryan Preece, whose fifth place effort was important regarding the transfer positions into the 40-car Daytona 500 lineup.
Preece edged Ty Dillon by a scant 0.04-second at the finish line to race his way into the Daytona 500. That gave reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric a starting bid based on qualifying speed – despite his 16th-place finish in the Duel – and sent Ty Dillon home.
Three of the four transfer position were evident after the first Duel – with Preece, Cindric, and David Ragan (who qualified on speed). Another will be determined in the second Duel.
“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,” the Team Penske driver Cindric said of receiving a speeding penalty after a mid-race pit stop.
“I’m obviously really happy to get the Verizon 5G Ford Mustang into the big show. Obviously, a lot for me left to learn, but racing on the biggest stage against the best drivers, it’s an amazing opportunity.”
The Fords – specifically Almirola – dominated Duel 1, spending most of the race bumper-to-bumper in varying order out front. Almirola and Logano, the 2015 Daytona 500 winner ran 1-2 for most of the race. There were nine lead changes among five drivers.
After the race, the Tampa, Fla. native Almirola smiled and mentioned the good run for Tampa sports – a nod to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl win last week.
“Great way to start Speedweeks,” Almirola said. “This thing is really fast and I can’t wait until Sunday. Just proud of everybody back at the shop, Doug Yates and Ford Motor Company all of our partners.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to sit here and do an interview at the start/finish line.
And he added a message for FOX Sports race announcer, Kansas City football fan Clint Bowyer, “Things are going right for Tampa Bay, right Clint Bowyer.”
Daytona 500 pole-winner Alex Bowman played it safe early in the race, hanging toward the rear initially. He ultimately had to pit several times for his crew to look under the hood of his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He finished 20th out of 24 cars in his race, four laps down.
Two-time defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who is trying to become the first driver in history to win three consecutive versions of NASCAR’s Great American Race, finished 13th. He had to push his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota back into the pits after the race because he ran out of fuel on the final lap – after taking the white flag in fourth position.
Kyle Larson, who is making his first start in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5, finished seventh. Daniel Suarez finished eighth in the No. 99 Chevrolet marking his Trackhouse Racing team’s debut. and Erik Jones finished 17th in his first Daytona points race with Richard Petty Motorsports.
With 29 laps to go, Daytona 500 polesitter Alex Bowman reported to his No. 48 Chevrolet team that he felt like the engine was “blowing up,” but after the crew checked under the hood, he returned to the track.
Duel 1 Results
|1||2||10||Aric Almirola||Smithfield Ford||60||Running|
|2||4||20||Christopher Bell||DEWALT Toyota||60||Running|
|3||12||6||Ryan Newman||Kohler Generators Ford||60||Running|
|4||11||22||Joey Logano||Shell Pennzoil Ford||60||Running|
|5||5||37||* Ryan Preece||Cottonelle Chevrolet||60||Running|
|6||17||96||* Ty Dillon(i)||Bass Pro Shops/Black Rifle Coffee Toyota||60||Running|
|7||8||5||Kyle Larson||Nations Guard Chevrolet||60||Running|
|8||6||99||Daniel Suarez||iFly Chevrolet||60||Running|
|9||14||34||Michael McDowell||Love’s Travel Stops Ford||60||Running|
|10||18||77||Jamie McMurray||AdventHealth Chevrolet||60||Running|
|11||3||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||Kroger/NOS Energy Drink Chevrolet||60||Running|
|12||9||21||Matt DiBenedetto||Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford||60||Running|
|13||7||11||Denny Hamlin||FedEx Toyota||60||Running|
|14||13||41||Cole Custer||HaasTooling.com Ford||60||Running|
|15||16||8||Tyler Reddick||Lenovo Chevrolet||60||Running|
|16||10||33||* Austin Cindric(i)||Verizon 5G Ford||59||Running|
|17||15||43||Erik Jones||Armor All Chevrolet||59||Running|
|18||19||00||Quin Houff||Mane ‘n Tail Chevrolet||58||Running|
|19||20||66||* Timmy Hill(i)||VSI Racing Ford||57||Running|
|20||1||48||Alex Bowman||Ally Chevrolet||56||Running|
|21||21||51||Cody Ware||Nurtec ODT Chevrolet||56||Running|
|22||22||52||Josh Bilicki||Wisconsin Lighting Lab Ford||14||Overheating|
Average Speed of Race Winner: 191.966 mph.
Time of Race: 0 Hrs, 46 Mins, 53 Secs. Margin of Victory: .041 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 0 for laps.
Lead Changes: 9 among 5 drivers.
Lap Leaders: A. Bowman 0;A. Almirola 1-2;D. Suarez 3-4;C. Bell 5;A. Almirola 6;C. Bell 7-8;A. Almirola 9-33;D. Hamlin 34;T. Reddick 35-36;A. Almirola 37-60.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Aric Almirola 4 times for 52 laps; Christopher Bell 2 times for 3 laps; Tyler Reddick 1 time for 2 laps; Daniel Suarez 1 time for 2 laps; Denny Hamlin 1 time for 1 lap.
An Interview with race winner Aric Almirola
THE MODERATOR: We are now joined by our Duel winner, Aric Almirola. We’ll jump right into questions.
Q. Take me back to the last lap, especially when you’re going into three. You’re leading. How tough is it to defend when Joey Logano is backing up to Bell to make that run? How does the leader stop that? What happened from that point from your point of view?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Yeah, I knew Joey was going to come with a run. I knew somebody was going to come with a run, I figured it would be Joey. He’s really good at that stuff. I saw him back up a couple times just to kind of see and gauge what he had, where his run was going to come.
I knew he would come with a run probably at one to go. It’s too risky to do it much earlier than that. I just knew I wanted to try to move around before he started his run to try and mess up his run or get him off on thinking which way he was going to go.
I was able to do that to where I could at least get him going in a direction that I knew he was going to go opposite of me rather than me guessing where he was going to go.
I felt like I did everything I could. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop his run. I wasn’t going to be able to just blatantly block him. That would probably cause a wreck. Our race car was way too fast. I wasn’t going to concede the win, but I certainly wasn’t going to get my really fast Smithfield Ford Mustang tore up trying to be overly defensive.
I made a move one way, then I blocked the top. He got to my inside. I was able to just side draft him and pull him back to where he couldn’t clear me.
Q. Did you essentially run him on the inside so you could do the side draft?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Well, you never know. I was more committed to making sure that I made the first move. Like, I wanted to zig so he had to zag, rather than just constantly holding the straight wheel, looking in my mirror, trying to figure out which way he was going to go. I felt like I was at least a little bit more on the offensive side, even though I was playing defense by doing that.
It worked out today. Don’t know that it would work out again another time. It’s just this package with these rules, the runs come so fast. You’re not going to be able to stop the run. It’s just about making sure you get in position to defend it when they get alongside of you.
Q. Compared to some of the other superspeedway races you’ve done with SHR over the years, how do you feel the car that you have here compares to those other ones?
ARIC ALMIROLA: I would say it’s every bit comparable. I feel like the car we had down here my first year with SHR in 2018 was extremely fast and capable of winning. I led the last three quarters of the lap that I needed to lead to win the Daytona 500. I just didn’t lead the last 25% of the lap.
Yeah, I’ve been down here with extremely fast Ford Mustangs every time I’ve come with Stewart-Haas Racing. They have an incredible program from top to bottom. Their speedway stuff has notoriously been very good. Seems like every time we show up for the Daytona 500 we have a car capable of winning.
Q. I know we’ve seen some stuff on social media. How much crap have you been giving Clint?
ARIC ALMIROLA: As much as I possibly can. Clint is a great person to give crap to (laughter).
Q. Before you had the speeding penalty, Austin seemed like he was doing pretty well in the draft. This is his first Cup action. How do you know how to trust a guy like that in the draft? I’m sure there’s other people who don’t have a ton of experience. You don’t want to tear your stuff up. What is the balance drafting with guys like that?
ARIC ALMIROLA: It’s hard to trust a guy that doesn’t have as much experience, especially in these cars. They draft a lot different than what the Xfinity cars do. It is a different animal so to speak.
You don’t really want to get big pushes from those guys, and you want to be careful when you’re giving them big pushes just because it’s all new to them.
But Austin is an incredible race car driver. Obviously he’s an Xfinity champion last year. He’s a very, very talented race car driver. So I’m sure he got up to speed very quickly. I’m sure he’ll figure it out really quick and he’ll be fine.
Q. Do you feel like this time around the Ford camp have a legitimate chance to win the 500? Do you feel like you in particular have what it takes to get it done on Sunday?
ARIC ALMIROLA: I do. I know that everybody in the Ford camp has been working incredibly hard to get back to Victory Lane at these speedway races, particularly here for the Daytona 500. It’s a really big deal. It’s a place that we all cherish coming to and winning at. It means a really big deal when you can put your car and your manufacturer in Victory Lane for the Daytona 500.
I know they’ve been working really hard to do that, giving us every resource we need at Stewart-Haas Racing to make sure we bring fast racecars.
Then on the engine side, Doug Yates, man, that guy loves speedway racing. He builds great engines for everything we do, but he takes a lot of pride in coming to Daytona and trying to get that trophy.
I’ve been to Victory Lane here with Doug before in the summer race in July. To see the emotion on his face, he was in Victory Lane with his wife and kids that day with us. Daytona is just a special place. It means a lot to everybody. It’s a really big deal for me. But I know it means a tremendous amount to Doug Yates. He’s been working really hard, and everybody at Roush-Yates engines, to make sure we have what we need to try to win on Sunday.
Q. What does this do for Sunday as far as building confidence? What does it mean to win the Duel, how it sets you up for Sunday?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Well, yeah, you said it. It just gives us a lot of confidence. We know we have a fast car. It drives really well. It handles well. It pushes. It gets pushed well. All of the things that are important to be successful at Daytona. Gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence going into the race on Sunday.
But there’s so much that can happen in this race that’s out of your control. I feel like so far we’ve done everything that we can do to maximize what we’re in control of. That’s all we can do. We’ll do the same thing on Sunday.
We’ll execute, we’ll have a really fast race car obviously after seeing how it performed tonight, then we just got to do all the little things right on Sunday. We’ve got to execute on pit road, we’ve got to have the right strategy, no mistakes, then hope that you don’t get caught up in somebody else’s mess.
Q. What type of statement does it mean leading 52 of 60 laps?
ARIC ALMIROLA: It’s a big statement, it really is. That is hard to do at these speedway races. Most oftentimes when you’re the leader, you are the sitting duck. It’s hard to lead that many laps and win the race. Usually when you lead that many laps, everybody behind you figuring out how to mount a charge, and you end up losing the race in the last lap.
I was glad that we were able to defend that run and make sure that we got our Smithfield Ford Mustang in Victory Lane, which is where it deserved to be after putting on that kind of dominant performance.
Q. We’re slowly getting back to some form of normalcy. We don’t have the right amount of practice and preparation. Having said that, you guys are putting fast cars out there. As we continue to social distance, how great does it make you feel that your team is out there putting cars like this together and putting together races like this where you’re dominating at Daytona?
ARIC ALMIROLA: It means a tremendous amount. The first thing that I think about is the guys and girls back at the shop. They’ve been navigating this pandemic for a long time at the shop now, almost going on a year, trying to figure out how to build racecars in shift work, not having that cohesiveness and everybody on the shop floor all together at the same time. It’s been really weird.
To see them adapt and continue to charge forward and figure out how to make more speed in our racecars week after week, over the off-season, to come down here with such a fast race car for the Daytona 500, and for them to do that under these really, really strange circumstances, it’s been incredible to watch, just their commitment to excellence and their ways of adapting to the circumstances.
It’s great to have fans in the stands again. We raced a lot last year with no fans. When I actually drove in this afternoon, seeing all the people pulling in to park, to come watch the races tonight, it really almost gave me — it did, it gave me goosebumps, got me a little bit emotional knowing we’re going to have to people in stands cheering and watching and excited about our sport. It’s good to get back to a little bit of normal.
Q. I know when it comes to the Daytona 500, you have to feel pretty good, you mentioned driving the No. 10, 10 years with Smithfield. Has the numbers things started to come through?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit over the off-season, leading into this race. If you believe in all that stuff, certainly it’s a great year to break out and have a lot of success. Doing it with Smithfield as my primary sponsor, they’ve been supporting me for 10 years, they’ve been an incredible partner for me and my career, for them to be able to have the success that they deserve by partnering with me and sponsoring me at Stewart-Haas Racing.
They’ve always believed in me, had a tremendous amount of faith in me. I feel like I’m certainly part of the Smithfield family. The only way for me to give back and say thank you is for stuff like this, to go out and win and to get the attention in the media and all those things with their branding all over. That’s how they win. That means a big deal for me.
Yeah, 10 years with them in the 10 car, it would be great to cap it off on Sunday with a Daytona 500 victory, for sure.
Q. Now that it’s raining over there in Daytona, is this going to make a significant change to the race once you hit the track on Sunday for the 500?
ARIC ALMIROLA: No, I don’t think the rain tonight will really have an impact. There’s still a lot of racing left to go the rest of the weekend. We have the truck race tomorrow night. You have the Xfinity race on Saturday. There’s a lot of racing, a lot going on on the racetrack.
Even if it starts on a green racetrack, if it rains on Saturday, the racetrack will take a lot of rubber very quickly. Our car is going to be fast regardless of track conditions.
Q. We’ve seen uptick in wrecks towards the end of the race. What is your strategy to avoid wrecks but also be up there for the win on Sunday?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Yeah, it’s hard. You got to be aggressive to run up front. You saw it tonight. But you see it all the time. It’s really hard to win from 15th. You can’t just drive up through the field and go win.
So when you ride around in the back, you really are relying on the leaders and the guys up front wrecking. When they don’t wreck, you end up looking kind of foolish and you run bad and you finish bad.
So, yeah, I think there’s so much risk/reward that you have to weigh out with speedway racing. It really is a high-speed chess match from start to finish. You have to figure out how aggressive you’re willing to be and how daring of situations you’re willing to put your car and yourself in to try and get to the front.
Once you get to the front, how do you keep it? There’s sometimes some big moves you have to make to try and keep your car out front. But, yeah, I think speedway racing always has and always will be that tale of weighing out risk versus reward. If you’re super aggressive, there’s days it works out for you, then there’s days that you end up on a wrecker.
Q. What was one point of tonight’s race that you improved on the most to have a successful race on Sunday?
ARIC ALMIROLA: Honestly, I felt like of all my takeaways from tonight, I would say the one thing I was most proud of myself about was getting on and off of pit road. I felt like the race was really won there. I thought I did a really good job of getting onto pit road without sliding my tires, without having any lock-ups, but still maximizing getting onto pit road. Not speeding, but rolling down pit road very aggressively, then getting into my box nice and clean, not sliding my tires, so that way my fuel guy could get plugged in right away. We won the race off of pit road. That’s really what set us up to be able to draft back by all those guys that pitted after us.
I know that sounds crazy. When you watch the race, you think about the action on the racetrack, but for me that was the thing I was most proud of myself about, was getting on pit road and executing everything I needed to do right there because I feel like that’s where the race was won by coming back out in the lead of that Ford group and controlling it from there.
Q. You talked about it a couple questions ago, but the risk versus reward of speedway racing in these Duels where you’re obviously racing for your starting spot in the 500, how difficult is it to manage that risk versus reward knowing if anything happens you’re starting at the rear Sunday or does that not even cross your mind?
ARIC ALMIROLA: No, it’s something you think about. There’s something that a lot of people overlook about the Duels now, is that it pays points. I mean, we just won 10 points. When you think about the Playoffs, you think about all the things like when it comes down the stretch, one point matters. I mean, that’s something that we think about.
I know a lot of the fans and a lot of people don’t think about that stuff, but yeah, it’s a big deal. So you don’t want to walk away from the Duels and not have any points to show for it, especially with as fast of a race car as we had, because you don’t know what can happen in the Daytona 500. You could get in a wreck early, leave here with minimal points.
Scoring the win was obviously great. Having a trophy and going to Victory Lane, all of those things, is the first thought. But the secondary thought to all of that is the fact that we just scored 10 points tonight.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us. Congratulations on the Duel win and your Super Bowl win.
ARIC ALMIROLA: Yes.
THE MODERATOR: Good luck in the 500.
ARIC ALMIROLA: Thanks, guys.
An Interview with Mike Bugarewicz
THE MODERATOR: We’ll get started with our second media availability after the Duel, our race-winning crew chief. We’ll get right into questions for him.
Q. Do you feel like you learned enough for the 500?
MIKE BUGAREWICZ: Yeah, absolutely. Going forward we’re probably just going to polish her up and get ready for Sunday. There’s not a scratch on the thing. It’s fast. It’s shown what we needed to see today. We don’t have a lot of interest in practicing any more this weekend. We’ll probably go out and run a couple laps by ourselves just to make sure everything is good. Other than that, line up. Everything went to plan today.
Q. As you mentioned already, your car has tremendous speed. What do you feel like this time around, come this 500, it will be the season for you guys to get it done?
MIKE BUGAREWICZ: Yeah, I mean, I feel like last year pretty much every speedway race we went to we had a lot of speed in our car. It’s just speedway racing, things didn’t work out for us in the end. We showcased that speed throughout the day.
Once again, the company, Stewart-Haas Racing, my team, Doug supplying us with motors, we got another really, really fast car. All we can ask for is opportunities again to be up front at the right time. Hopefully we’ll capitalize this year.
Q. Mike, you’ve worked with several different drivers at SHR. When it comes to superspeedway racing, does anything from driver to driver translate? Anything from drivers you’ve worked with previously you’ve been able to apply working with Aric?
MIKE BUGAREWICZ: From the car side of things here, I think we’ve just built the best-handling, fastest cars that we could, irregardless of who the driver is.
I think in some senses there’s maybe you would say less nuances between a driver you might change something in the setup or do something different. Working with Clint, he’s also a great speedway driver here in the past. We haven’t changed much from what we ran with Clint here.
Hopefully that answers your question.
Q. You came so close last season to so many wins. How great is it to have the momentum of a victory going into the 500 on Sunday?
MIKE BUGAREWICZ: Yeah, absolutely. You’re right, it was our first year together and we had a lot of successes throughout the summertime. A lot of those didn’t equate to wins just because of simple mistakes, just little things here and there that we need to polish up and do better to beat those upper echelon teams that contend every week.
Obviously starting out the season with a Duel win isn’t the 500 yet, but it’s the right direction for going into Sunday. Like I said, we felt like our speedway program was really good last year. We keep doing the same thing, keep polishing on it, trying to make it better. All we can ask for is kind of be in the same situation we were last year at the 500, running top three, getting down to the wire. Obviously it’s our turn this year.
Q. Knowing you were locked into the Daytona 500, what helped make the decision to (indiscernible) instead of playing it safe?
THE MODERATOR: Could you speak louder for us. We can’t hear for us.
Q. Knowing you were locked into the 500, what made it better to push instead of playing it safe to avoid a wreck?
MIKE BUGAREWICZ: I think you want to get a win any time you can. It means a lot to not only us as a team and a driver, but our sponsors out there. This is a special year with Smithfield and Aric. Any time we can capitalize on a win, that’s always going to be a positive thing.
The other part of it, the momentum it builds going into the season. Having that confidence that we can win, that showcased today. We can hopefully carry it into the Daytona 500.
Q. Mike, certainly with all the freeze on the parts and everything, these cars are essentially the same as a year ago. I know everybody is still working and refining. How much was this racing that much different from last year or was there really that much different from what you saw last year?
MIKE BUGAREWICZ: Yeah, I feel it’s very similar. Your point is valid. There isn’t a lot of major, say, large changes that we can make with the parts freezes and those type of things. As race teams, as racers, we don’t stop. We keep looking for that small advantage.
I think you see it in showcasing in qualify with how close the field is. It’s all those little things you do a little bit better than the next guy that improves your position. I think that even equates, the draft is a little bit of an equalizer, but I think when it comes down to it, leading that line or racing for the win at the end, all those details matter.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us. Congratulations.
MIKE BUGAREWICZ: Thank you. Appreciate it, guys.