Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first official race with new crew chief Greg Ives ended with their car’s failing to pass post-qualifying inspection.
Their second race ended in Victory Lane.
Earnhardt, the defending Daytona 500 champion, had to start from the rear of the field in Thursday night’s opening Budweiser Duel because the ride heights on his No. 88 Chevrolet were too low in last Sunday’s qualifying for the Daytona 500.
But on a chilly night with temperatures in the upper 30s at Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt blew past Matt Kenseth on the 43rd of 60 laps and won the first of the Duels, which determines the field for the Daytona 500.
It was a Hendrick Motorsports sweep as Jimmie Johnson dominated the second duel and held off Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards in a green-white-checkered finish triggered by a crash involving Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin with four laps to go.
Earnhardt beat Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon to the finish line, meaning Hendrick drivers will occupy three of the first four starting spots in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Gordon clinched the pole, and Johnson already earned the outside spot on the front row in last week’s qualifying. Earnhardt and Busch will start in the second row.
Joey Logano, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer of Emporia, Kan., rounded out the top five.
“Just a great car,” said Earnhardt, who has now won four Budweiser Duels. “Greg and the guys should be real proud of the effort and the work they done in the offseason to bring such a good race car here.
“Wasn’t a whole lot else to it. Just trying to get up through there was a lot of fun. Holding the lead’s real hard to do. I think everybody’s pretty vulnerable out front to people getting runs.”
Johnson, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, led 40 of the 64 laps and was hardly threatened.
“It’s huge,” Johnson said. “To have the week we have had with the front row being secured, the wins tonight, it has been a great start to Speedweeks. To be able to get out there and race and be out there with good cars … those Gibbs cars are awfully strong.”
The second Duel finished under the green-white-checkered flag after Hamlin tapped Patrick from the rear, damaging her Chevrolet and collecting Bobby Labonte and Brian Scott. Patrick, who wrecked her primary car in practice after a collision with Hamlin, was livid, and the two had a heated and animated discussion after the race.
Patrick still managed to finish 10th and qualify for the Daytona 500, but she remained upset with Hamlin.
“He said he needs to run close and move forward, but (he’s) turning me,” Patrick said. “That happened in practice, too. I get being close, but he goes to my left rear, and it spun around. I don’t want to have these issues, but we can’t be putting ourselves out of the race on someone else’s expense, and nothing happens to him.
“I like to race hard, but there’s no point being out there wrecking each other.”
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