Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson win Daytona qualifying races
Daytona Beach, Fla. — Danica and Denny provided the dust-up. Hendrick Motorsports delivered another sweep.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson swept the Budweiser Duel races Thursday night to give Hendrick Motorsports a 1-2-3 start for the Daytona 500. Jeff Gordon had already won the pole the season-opening race, and the rest of the field was locked in through the pair of 150-mile qualifying races.
Danica Patrick was in the second race and needed to finish 15th or better to guarantee a spot Sunday. She was sitting pretty, too, until her second incident with Denny Hamlin in two days damaged her car and put her in danger of missing the field.
Her Stewart-Haas Racing team worked frantically on rapid repairs and she restarted 18th with two laps to go. She was pushed all the way around Daytona International Speedway by teammate Kurt Busch to finish 10th and make the 500.
"There's a lot of stressing out. Obviously, for my team and everybody, but mostly for (sponsor) GoDaddy, it made me nervous, too," she said. "This is the biggest race of the year and they need to be in it."
The tension spilled over after the race when she confronted Hamlin and they differed on what occurred. She was already in her backup car because of an incident in Wednesday's practice, and she believed Hamlin spun her Thursday.
It led to a heated argument, with Hamlin at times appearing to try to calm Patrick, and he finally seemed exasperated when he covered his face with his hands.
"He cut across my rear bumper and pulls the back end around," Patrick said. "I get being close. But he's been going to my left rear and it just gets it light. I don't want to have these issues, but if we're going to have these issues then we're going to have to deal with them. We can't be putting ourselves out of our race at someone else's expense and nothing's happened to him."
Tony Stewart, her car co-owner, entered the fray and instructed Hamlin to watch the video.
"What do you want me to do, Tony? Not race close," replied Hamlin, adamant that Patrick's car was too loose and he didn't touch her. He maintained the spin was an aerodynamic issue.
"I try to treat everyone as equal," Hamlin said. "If you're in this Cup series, you deserved your way here and you can handle a lot of situations. I just got close to her and her car got loose again. I just tried to explain that, 'Danica, oh, it's you, I've got to stay away two feet because your car is loose?'
"I guess I just have to give more room because once I get close enough to her, her car just gets out of control."
When Hamlin and Patrick were finally separated, Busch was waiting to congratulate her. He did it by cupping her face with both hands; Busch has been accused by an ex-girlfriend of domestic assault, and he has maintained he merely cupped her face.
"It shouldn't go unsaid, Kurt was there for me," Patrick said. "Without Kurt, I wouldn't have finished where I did."
Meanwhile, the Earnhardt and Johnson wins were anticlimactic.
Gordon and Johnson swept the front row Sunday in the first round of qualifying. Then Earnhardt, the defending Daytona 500 winner, won the first duel to take the third starting spot.
"We've had a great car all week," Earnhardt said. "I'm so glad to get through the duel in one piece because I know how good this car is. We're going to have a fun day on Sunday."
Gordon, the four-time NASCAR champion, finished second in the duel and was followed by Joey Logano, Stewart and Clint Bowyer.
Johnson easily won the second duel, leading Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle across the finish line.
"That car is bad first," Johnson said. "I'm stoked for my teammate to win the first duel. We won the second, and Jeff and I have the front row locked down. It's been an awesome week for all our Hendrick Motorsports cars."
Racing their way into the Daytona 500 through the two duels were: Cole Whitt, Michael Annett, JJ Yeley, Michael McDowell, Ty Dillon, Landon Cassill, Ryan Blaney, Reed Sorenson, and Mike Wallace.
Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, and Blaney, son of former Cup driver Dave Blaney, will be making their Daytona 500 debuts.
Track: Daytona International Speedway (tri-oval, 2.5 miles), Daytona Beach, Fla.
Schedule: Today, practice (Fox Sports 1, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m., 2-3:30 p.m.); Saturday, practice (Fox Sports 1, 10:30 a.m.-noon); Sunday, race, 1 p.m. (Fox, noon-5 p.m.)
Distance: 500 miles (200 laps)
Last year: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening race for the second time.