Aric Almirola tops Christopher Bell for Duel #1 win

Aric Almirola held off a fast-approaching Christopher Bell to win Thursday night’s first 150-mile Daytona 500 qualifying race.

With the win, Almirola will claim the third starting position in Sunday’s 500.

“All these guys on the team built me an incredible Ford Mustang,” Almirola said. “What a great way to kick off our 10th season together with Smithfield Foods. They’ve been an incredible partner of mine.

“It’s a great way to starts Speedweeks. This thing is really fast. I can’t wait until Sunday. Proud of everybody back at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve got to do an interview at the start/finish line. Things are going great for Tampa Bay!”

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While the margin of victory was a mere .041 seconds, Almirola dominated the caution-free race, leading 52 of the 60 laps.

Ryan Newman finished third, Joey Logano was fourth and Ryan Preece clipped Ty Dillon at the finish line to claim the fifth spot.

With Preece the top-finishing non-charter team in the field, reigning Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric claimed the second 500 starting position among open teams based on his qualifying speed.

Alex Bowman started on the pole of the qualifying race thanks to winning the pole Wednesday night for the Daytona 500 but Almirola moved out front after the first lap.

Daniel Suarez went three-wide to grab the lead at the start of Lap 3. Bell got around Suarez to take the lead on Lap 5.

Almirola returned to the lead on Lap 7 as Cindric moved into third. Bell circled back to the front on Lap 8. Almirola returned to the front on Lap 9.

With 45 laps remaining, Almirola led the way followed by Logano and Bell.

With 30 laps to go, Bowman was forced to pit alone under green with what he thought might be engine issues. After his car came to rest in his pit stall, the hood went up on his No. 48 Chevrolet.

If Bowman’s team is forced to change his engine, he’ll have to start the Daytona 500 from the rear of the field.

On Lap 35, a group of Ford drivers elected to pit for fuel and tires and Denny Hamlin inherited the lead.

Cindric was penalized during his stop for speeding on pit road and had to make a pass-through penalty under green.

The group of Chevrolet cars pit with 25 laps remaining, with Hamlin again leading the way.

With 23 to go, Almirola, with some help of fellow Ford drivers, got around Hamlin and reclaimed the lead.

With 15 laps to go, Bowman was back on the track but three laps down and Cindric fell a lap down to the leader as well.

After 50 laps, Almirola continued to lead the way but there were reports he may be close on fuel. Logano was second, Matt DiBenedetto third, Newman fourth and Ty Dillon fifth.

With five laps remaining, Almirola and Logano remained first and second with the Toyotas of Bell and Hamlin close behind.

Tyler Reddick had to start the race from the rear of the field after his team made a transmission change to his No. 8 Chevrolet.

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