Daytona Duels: Aric Almirola wins first of two twin races, will start third in 2021 Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The NASCAR Cup Series takes another step toward Sunday’s Daytona 500 as the field officially gets set with a pair of 150-mile qualifying races Thursday night.

The Bluegreen Vacation Duels at Daytona International Speedway split the field for a pair of 60-lap sprints to the finish. While Alex Bowman and William Byron locked themselves into their front-row starting spots during Wednesday’s pole qualifying, these races determined where the other 38 drivers line up on Sunday.

In the opening duel, Aric Almirola lost the lead to Joey Logano on the final lap but regained it coming off Turn 4 and outran a gang of cars to finish out front at a crowded finish line. With the win, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver will start third in the 500.

"(Crew chief) Mike Bugarewicz and all these guys on this team built me an incredible Ford Mustang, so what a way to kickoff our 10th season together with Smithfield," Almirola said. "A great way to start Speedweeks and this thing is really fast; I can’t wait until Sunday. It’s been a long time since I got to sit here and do an interview on the start-finish line."

Aric Almirola (10) races to win Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo: Nigel Cook, Daytona Beac News-Journal)

Almirola has suffered plenty of heartbreak at Daytona. The Tampa, Florida, native lost the 2018 Daytona 500 in dramatic fashion as he was spun by Austin Dillon on the final lap.

He does have a Daytona win, however. Back when he drove for Richard Petty Motorsports, Almorila piloted the No. 43 Chevrolet to a win during the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 summer race.

Christopher Bell, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Ryan Preece rounded out the top five. Newman is preparing for his first Daytona 500 since last year's horific crash that left him hospitalized.

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These duels are particularly important for the six non-chartered entries that failed to lock themselves in during qualifying. Ty Dillon fell one position short — finishing sixth in the first duel —  of making Sunday's 500.

With 36 cars locked into every NASCAR race through its charter system, and with 44 teams entered for 40 starting positions at Daytona, eight drivers are battling for four available spots.

Rules call for the two fastest non-charter teams on pole day to get starts on Sunday, with the highest finishing drivers on Thursday getting the other two, unless one of those highest finishers was also one of the two fastest non-charter qualifiers. Four non-charter drivers were lined up for each Duel.

Timmy Hill also failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, but Austin Cindric, driving an extra Team Penske Ford, locked up a spot based on his performance Wednesday n. Cindric will replace Matt DiBenedetto in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford in 2022.

Kaz Grala, Garrett Smithley, and Noah Gragson will race for the final two 500 spots tonight.

Rain started to fall at Daytona International Speedway during driver introductions for the second Duel, which had delayed the green flag. 

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