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NASCAR takeaways: Ryan Blaney left fuming after big crash in Duels at Daytona

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NASCAR takeaways: Ryan Blaney left fuming after big crash in Duels at Daytona

Bob Pockrass

FOX NASCAR Insider

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In the Daytona 500 qualifying races, it wasn’t the thrill of victory that brought the most joy.

It was the thrill of not going home following the duels, which set the lineups for the Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson barely got into the Daytona 500 field, needing a last-lap pass during his duel Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway. Kaz Grala also needed a last-lap move to earn a spot in the sport’s biggest event Sunday.

“I just would have been really disappointed,” said the driver and team co-owner Johnson about the possibility of missing the 500.

“I think I’m identifying with the fact that there’s a lot more riding on my performance in the car these days than when I was a full-time driver — not only my own personal goals of being a driver, but what’s going on as being a team owner, trying to help grow a race team.”

Takeaways from the duels, where Toyota drivers Tyler Reddick (23XI Racing) and Christopher Bell (Joe Gibbs Racing) won their respective races.

Johnson Nearly Has To Watch

Johnson more or less had to beat JJ Yeley in his duel to make the 500 field. Johnson was ahead of Yeley for much of it until Johnson got collected when a couple of cars spun in front of him.

“I thought I was going to get cleaned out,” Johnson said. “I didn’t see what started it. … Just a huge scare.”.

Entering the final lap, Yeley was ahead of Johnson and Johnson didn’t appear to have any help to get past Yeley, who was driving for an underfunded NY Racing organization.

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Johnson, meanwhile, has significant sponsorship in running a part-time schedule for the team, Legacy Motor Club, that he co-owns.

“I’m like, ‘I’m not going to make it, not going to make the Daytona 500′” Johnson said. “I’m going to have to call all our partners. I’m going to have to stand in the suite during the 500 and shake hands, not drive a car.

“This is running through my mind as I’m catching him. I have to figure out a way.”

As cars started having contact ahead of them on the final lap, Yeley opted to go to the outside. He lost momentum and Johnson, in the middle, was able to steam by Yeley for the spot.

“An almost wreck happens, leave [the gas pedal] on the floor, hope for the best,” Johnson said. “I just went the other direction than JJ’s car, and it worked out.”

Yeley was frustrated but felt there wasn’t much he could do.

“I made a split-second decision to go to the outside, carry the momentum, clear him, make the racetrack two-wide where he couldn’t pass,” Yeley said. “He stayed in the middle. The 19 [of Martin Truex Jr.] pushed him. The momentum carried him all the way to the checkered flag.

“It sucks.”

Johnson, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, had not previously raced in a duel where he was in jeopardy of not making the field.

“I just have such a better appreciation for what many have gone through to race in,” Johnson said. “I was so fortunate for so many years to not have to worry about getting in on speed for a variety of different reasons.”

Blaney Angry After Wreck

A big wreck in the second duel resulted in a hard hit for Ryan Blaney. The defending Cup champion was angry about getting hooked by William Byron, who had been tapped by Kyle Busch, who had been tapped by Brad Keselowski.

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“You cannot push in the corner that hard in the tri-oval,” Blaney said. “I don’t know when guys are going to get it. I’m sick of paying the expense of it and getting right-reared from someone’s dumb push.

“It’s just frustrating because we do everything right and then you have guys who are just careless and just shove guys until they don’t know when to let them go, and it causes wrecks and I seem to be the byproduct of getting hooked in the right-rear, which is never fun.”

The views of the others involved:

Busch: “[Keselowski] couldn’t see through me. I don’t blame him. That’s just the nature of what this stuff is.”

Keselowski: “I was tight to Kyle. I saw it. I checked up. I got off his bumper just in time for him to get back into the 24 [of Byron] and check up and I hit him again. … He shuffled in front of Kyle and we had a freight train of a run coming.”

Byron: “I just got choked up there and lost momentum and by the time he got to me, I was going quite a bit slower than him. … He’s trying to help. Just the momentum that I lost and the momentum he had and the 6 [of Keselowski] I guess was on his bumper.”

Reddick, Bell Win

Winning a duel can add confidence for the Daytona 500, although drivers know that the moves at the end of the 500 will be much more daring with drivers possibly giving less room than they do in the races that just set the lineups.

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For Reddick and Bell, their wins were big in the sense that neither has won a Cup event at Daytona or Talladega, the tracks where drafting-style racing requires precision when making blocks and moves to get the right push at the right time to retain the lead.

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“Certainly the duels showed a lot of good promise for the Toyotas,” Bell said. “It’s nice to have that speed going into these races because we haven’t been able to win a speedway race since the Next Gen car [that was introduced in 2022].”

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including over 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass.

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