DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway became the RFK Racing Show as Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher won their respective Bluegreen Vacations Duel races.
However, both of their victories proved to be polar opposites as far as the competitors’ aggression levels throughout the 60-lap races.
In Duel Race No. 1, the race was tame as there were no incidents. The only time the race got spicy was when the Hendrick Motorsports stranglehold turned into Ford’s turf.
This was a result of the Blue Oval camp, notably Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, opting to go for two tires compared to the Bowtie Brigade going for four tires. It altered the outcome of the race.
When the dust settled, Keselowski brought the No. 6 Ford Mustang to victory lane.
The 2012 Cup champion credited the victory to the Ford camp due to their excellent draft work and strategy.
“I’ve got to give credit to the other Fords,” said Keselowski. “We worked really well together, Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe. We had great strategy, Austin Cindric, and we stuck together and drove away and got ourselves in position where we could control the finish of this race, and I’m happy to see all those Fords up front. Good job to all those guys. Great start for our Kohler Generators Ford team. This is special.”
Further back, the fight for who’d make the Daytona 500 came down to Kaz Grala and J.J. Yeley. On the other hand Noah Gragson already locked himself into “The Great American” race after Wednesday’s qualifying session. Gragson separated himself from the field.
At one point, Grala’s shot of making the 500 nearly went awry after speeding on pit road which promoted Yeley as the top open car until the very last lap. Grala finished ahead of the MBM Motorsports driver, sending Yeley home.
Sunday’s race will mark Grala’s second straight 500 start. Compared to last year, it was more chaotic to the point he described the stress as puke levels.
“We had about a 30-day period to try to put the car together. It was hectic going into it,” said Grala.
“Kaulig Racing last year had everything buttoned up. They were an existing team; it was a lot easier, so pretty much turnkey, came here and raced. But as far as the Duel, I would say it was more hectic this year, at least from a stress perspective for me.
“Both years I have been in the Duel and I’ve been in, and then I’ve had something catastrophic go wrong and known that I’m out and I’m definitely going to be out and then miraculously exactly what needed to happen happened both years for me to get in.
“Apparently, I’m lucky in the Duels, but I would have rather saved my luck for Sunday. Hopefully, I’ll still have some left in the tank.”
When the second Duel race unfolded, the competition heated up all night with very little time of single file racing. That all changed in the closing laps when Joey Logano was in control, but Buescher wouldn’t be denied.
When the white flag waved, the leaders were trying to get by the lapped car of David Ragan.
From there, it became a chess game where any mistake would lead to tremendous consequences. As Buescher ducked low, Logano tried blocking the move which backfired. Logano got sideways and was then hit by Harrison Burton on the backstretch.
Not only did this result in the only caution of the night, but it ended the race with Buescher declared as the race winner. After failing to make the main event feature in the Busch Light Clash at Los Angeles, this victory certainly boosted the morale of Buescher and his team ahead of Sunday’s 64th Daytona 500.
“This is awesome. What a great start for RFK and with all the hard work the guys have put in to get this thing going. Everybody back here has worked so hard in the off-season. For us to put it in victory lane is just an awesome start for the entire organization,” said Buescher.
“We have good hot rods here. They are fast and they handle good. I knew we were in good shape that whole race and we were able to lead a lot early. McDowell stuck with us. All the Fords were doing a good job. We caught a lap car there and just went to pull below. I hate to have any contact coming down to the end of the Duels but I am just so proud of everybody. It is a really neat way to start this thing off.”
Logano was frustrated after crashing out. While Team Penske has a backup ready, he admitted fault for the accident.
“I knew as the leader I was a bit of a sitting duck, but at worst I was gonna finish fourth and was gonna try to let it kind of play out and didn’t think the 17 was gonna get a run that quick. He didn’t fall back that far and it came to me so fast,” Logano on the last lap crash.
“I reacted to try to block it and I should have just let it happen and tried to race from there. I just messed up. The worst part is I put our team in a bad spot trying to fix this thing or get another car. I got the 21 too in it, so it’s a dumb mistake. That’s all there is to it. I’m not perfect.”
For Burton, he felt it was too late to avoid hitting Logano’s No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Mustang. Consequently, Burton sustained right front damage and the carcass fell off once crossing the line.
“It is hard to see much. I couldn’t really see anything in front of (Michael McDowell) and that is kind of why I think I got in it. Joey hit the wall and I couldn’t miss it,” said Burton. “It looks like someone zigged when they should have zagged. It is just racing at these kind of race tracks and we will move on. We got a good finishing position, we just need to get our car fixed up.”
Unlike the first Duel race, the battle for the 40th and final spot was one-sided. Jacques Villeneuve had problems all race where his No. 27 Ford had the hood up twice and fell out of the race. The 1997 Formula One World Champion will make his first 500 this Sunday by virtue of his qualifying speed.
Meanwhile, Greg Biffle was the class of the field among the open cars. For the first time since Homestead in 2016, he’ll make a Cup race for the upstart NY Racing squad.
On the other hand, Timmy Hill failed to qualify, joining teammate Yeley as the duo who did not make the 500 this year.
For a team that literally had a few people meet recently, the RCR and Hendrick collaborative effort brought satisfaction to Biffle. The oldest driver in this year’s race made it clear if the opportunity was around where he could be competitive, he’d jump at the chance on racing.
“I have not slept much in the last couple days just trying to keep a cool composure. I’ve been nervous about this race because there’s so many things that can happen and so many ways it can go,” Biffle explained.
“We’ve talked the scenarios all the way, and I watched the first race and I saw (Gragson) was in the lead of the cars, and I thought, well, if he finishes in front of those guys and the 50 actually runs in the second race, we’ll be in on time.”
“Just figuring all those scenarios. But the car drove really, really good. We ran up in the top 10 there, 12th or whatever, ended up finishing 14th. We had a little bit of a hiccup trying to put fuel in on pit road and lost the draft, so we were able to kind of work our way back in there,” Biffle continued.
“Maybe that was good for us because we missed that wreck towards the end, so we might have been in the middle of that. Really excited for Grambling University, and this Childress-Hendrick combination really worked for us. We’re excited about it.”
Just two more practices remain before the 64th Daytona 500 commences on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX. Kyle Larson will lead the field to the green flag.