DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Joe Gibbs Racing continued to flex its muscle cars by sweeping Thursday’s Budweiser Duels.
Matt Kenseth survived a three-wide photo finish with runner-up Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne to win the first 150-mile qualifying heat, and JGR teammate Denny Hamlin made it through a crash-marred finish in the second heat to set the 43-car grid for Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500.
Kenseth, a two-time winner of the Daytona 500, redeemed himself after wrecking twice this week by holding off Harvick and Kahne as the three cars were separated by .063 seconds. Meanwhile, Hamlin, the winner of last season’s finale at Homestead and last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, won the race off pit road to go to the front, finishing ahead of runner-up Jeff Gordon and third-place finisher Kurt Busch, avoiding a last-lap crash triggered by Jimmie Johnson, who spun in front of the lead pack coming out of Turn 4.
“We won the NASCAR golf tournament, too, this morning, so we’re really undefeated,’’ Hamlin said. “Once that snowball starts to roll it’s hard to stop it, and right now we’re on a heck of a run.’’
Harvick, in his first season driving the No. 4 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, pulled out of a bunched lead draft and dived beneath Kenseth on the backstretch with one to go. Harvick pulled even with Kenseth going into Turn 3, but Kenseth held his line to hold off Harvick by .022 seconds.
NASCAR officials disallowed Harvick’s result, however, when his car failed postrace inspection after the track bar exceeded the maximum 3-inch split. It forced Harvick to earn a starting spot in the 500 based upon his qualifying speed or points.
Rookie Cole Whitt qualified for his first Daytona 500, racing his way into the field with a last-lap charge to the front in which he gained five positions to finish 12th. Whitt overcame a wreck in Wednesday’s first practice session in which he blew a right front tire and tore up the right side of his No. 26 Toyota fielded by Swan Racing, a fledgling two-car operation that had another car torn up when Parker Kligerman wrecked his car.
“We knew it was already hard for us to even get down here, let alone have the things happened to our team,’’ Whitt said. “To be in the Daytona 500 is something I’ve dreamed of my whole life.’’
It was a sentiment shared by fellow rookie Alex Bowman, who finished 15th and earned the second transfer spot, good for a ticket to ride in his first Daytona 500 in the No. 23 Toyota fielded by BK Racing.
Kyle Larson was the highest finishing rookie in the second Duel, finishing seventh in the No. 42 Ganassi Racing Chevy to earn his first Daytona berth.
Austin Dillon, the rookie pole-sitter, started at the front of 24-car grid in the first qualifying heat and led the first 14 laps before surrendering the lead to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led the next 14 laps. Dillon dropped back and wound up finishing 19th . . . Outside pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr., who led the field to green in the second Duel, finished eighth after getting caught up in the last-lap crash . . . Landon Cassill was ninth and made the 500 field after being medically cleared after being hit by a car while riding his bike last Saturday. He suffered abrasions on his face and torso . . . Brothers Terry and Bobby Labonte finished 12th and 13th, respectively, in the second Duel to race their way into the 500 field.