DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Driving a car he believes is unbeatable, Dale Earnhardt Jr. added to his family legacy at Daytona International Speedway on the anniversary of his father’s death.
Earnhardt won the first qualifying race Thursday night for the Daytona 500 to earn a starting spot on the second row for NASCAR’s biggest event.
It was Earnhardt’s 17th career win at Daytona International Speedway. The late Dale Earnhardt leads all drivers with 34 career victories at Daytona. He was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
“It’s another win at Daytona for the Earnhardts, adding to the legacy,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. “We’re up here in the 50s now.”
The No. 88 Chevrolet that Hendrick Motorsports brought to Daytona won three times last year, and Earnhardt admitted after the qualifying race that he allowed himself to daydream about winning as a tribute to his father.
“I try not to make too big a deal — I told all you guys how much I like people to remember dad and talk about dad,” he said. “I’m guilty of daydreaming a little bit, about winning this race tonight because of the day. That’s very special to me. I was glad that nothing bad happened and we didn’t tear our car up because that would have been embarrassing on a day like this.”
Kyle Busch, the reigning Sprint Cup champion, won the second qualifying race, but several contenders wrecked their prized cars in a last-lap accident.
Busch was trying to hold off Jamie McMurray on the final lap and briefly blocked him. McMurray moved up the track for another try, but Jimmie Johnson was in the same space and Johnson bounced off the wall to trigger a multi-car accident.
Among those who wrecked strong race cars were Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr., who will all have to go to backup cars for the Daytona 500. Kenseth had earned a front row starting spot for Sunday’s season-opener, but he’ll now forfeit it because of the crash.
It wasn’t clear how much damage Kurt Busch and McMurray sustained, but Stewart-Haas Racing said it would not go to a backup for Busch.
Only two spots were up for grabs in the 500 — one in each qualifying race. Michael McDowell earned the spot in the first race, while Robert Richardson Jr. earned the final transfer spot. Richardson only got the call two weeks ago from BK Racing to attempt the Daytona 500.
“I was at home working on my ranch,” said Richardson, who added every dollar he earns this weekend will go into a college fund for his newborn son. Richardson manages hay production as his full-time job at a ranch in Pilot Point, Texas.
“The stress that I’ve been putting just on myself in general to make this race, I’ve been pacing the floor ever since I woke up this morning just eager to get this race underway, just eager to see how the outcome would happen.”
Failing to make the Daytona 500 were: Josh Wise, Cole Whitt, David Gilliland and Reed Sorenson.
Earnhardt dominated the 150-mile race and easily darted around leader Denny Hamlin with six laps remaining to cruise to the victory. Earnhardt led 43 of the 60 laps in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, and Hamlin seemed to be the only driver with a car strong enough to challenge the No. 88.
Hamlin won last week’s exhibition race, but his Toyota didn’t have the help Hamlin needed when Earnhardt was ready to make a pass for the win. Hamlin finished fifth.
Defending Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano was second and Ryan Blaney was third. Blaney had early issues with a loose wheel, but had assured himself a spot in Sunday’s Daytona 500 based on qualifying speed. Still, his Wood Brothers Racing team got him back on the lead lap and he was in position to work with Logano to make a late run at Earnhardt.
Instead, the order didn’t change and Blaney’s finish opened up a spot in the Daytona 500 for McDowell.
“It’s so intense. When Blaney had a problem there, we were counting on him racing his way in,” McDowell said. “I can’t tell you what it means to make the Daytona 500. We’re racing Sunday and I can’t wait to get going.”
It’s the third time in seven years that McDowell has raced his way into the 500. He had to use a block on Whitt to preserve his position. The block led to Whitt spinning and bringing out the only caution of the first race.