Almirola wins first Daytona qualifier; rain hampers second

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 12, 2021

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.  — 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. He led 52 of the 60 laps.

The second qualifying race was in a rain delay later Thursday night.

“Things are going right for Tampa Bay,” Almirola said about his first career Speedweeks victory the same week his hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.

“This thing was a hot rod. Our race car is so fast,” he added. “We’ve got an incredible race car and I can’t wait for the Daytona 500.”

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, which was in a hold because of rain.

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 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.

“I feel like I did all the hard things correctly tonight, it’s the easy one that I got wrong,” Cindric said. “I can’t believe I sped on pit road. I get bonehead of the night.”

Dillon, who wound up sixth in the 22-car field, is scheduled to drive the Xfinity Series opener Saturday for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“It hurts for sure,” Dillon said. “I believe in myself that I can get it done in these races and to finish sixth and not get any reward for it is hard.”

Timmy Hill, who did race his way into the 500 a year ago, joined Dillon as the two drivers who didn’t make it out of the Duel.

Two-time defending Daytona 500 winner Hamlin, trying to become the first driver to win three straight, said his Toyota is fine for Sunday.

“We cut it too close on fuel,” Hamlin said.

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.