DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It wasn’t teammates who pushed Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott into the lead during Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel races at Daytona International Speedway.
Unusual on the surface perhaps, but such is often the case when it comes to restrictor-plate racing.
Both Blaney and Elliott wound up with wins just the same.
Two young drivers pegged for stardom in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Series didn’t disappoint, winning their respective qualifying events. Youth edged experience this time around.
Officially, the field is now set for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500.
Blaney will line up third, inside the second row of the 40-car field. Elliott will start fourth, alongside Blaney. Alex Bowman (Hendrick Motorsports) and Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) won front-row starting positions four days earlier.
Blaney has new team. Sort of. Elliott has a new car number. Sort of.
For Blaney, his No. 12 Team Penske crew is made up of most of the folks who helped field last year’s No. 21 entry when he drove for Wood Brothers Racing. That includes crew chief Jeremy Bullins.
Elliott’s still at Hendrick Motorsports, but his car number now stirs memories of his father, 1988 series champion Bill Elliott. What had been No. 24 is now No. 9. Natives of his hometown of Dawsonville, Ga. rejoice.
Blaney spent most of the opening qualifying race running with teammates Logano and Brad Keselowski at the front of the pack. But in the closing circuits it was a push from Darrell Wallace that sent him shooting into the lead.
“I apparently don’t have any friends,” Logano said of the Blaney/Wallace tandem.
“I’ve seen you race before,” noted Wallace. “You’re not anybody’s friend.”
“I know. I could tell,” responded Logano.
They were smiling and joking. But there was a tinge of disappointment underneath.
Blaney, 24, scored his first MENCS win last season. Elliott, 22, is still chasing his first points win.
Victory lane doesn’t differentiate between points and non-points wins, though. Elliott came home first, withstanding the charges of Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones and Clint Bowyer for a final two-lap push. It was Harvick, the ’14 series champ and a former Daytona 500 winner, that gave Elliott the boost past then leader Hamlin.
Some drivers and teams took chances. Some did not. Sunday there will be no holding back.
“Heck yeah man,” Harvick said when asked if drivers would be braver come Sunday. “It’s the Daytona 500. If you back her in the fence going for the lead, so be it.”
o Roll out the backups. Wrecks by several drivers in Thursday’s Can-Am Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway sent teams scurrying to the transporters where backup entries were quickly unloaded.
Among the automotive wounded were the No. 48 of Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson, the No. 2 Team Penske Ford of Brad Keselowski and the No. 42 of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson.
The three drivers were among the favorites heading into Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, perhaps none as much as Keselowski, last week’s winner in the non-points Clash race at DIS.
The price for the car exchange? All will start from the rear of the field.