DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Chase Elliott already had the top starting spot for NASCAR season-opening Daytona 500, so he had no real reason to race hard on Thursday night in a qualifying race.
But Elliott, who fell short time and again during last year’s rookie season to secure a win, wanted a trophy. He got it by earning the first of a pair of 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.
“I know this was just a Duel win, and doesn’t mean a lot for the playoffs, but it still means something to me,” said Elliott.
Indeed, this was technically just an exhibition race. But new rules for this season earned Elliott 10 points with the win. NASCAR’s new format this year including a provision that awards points on a 10-to-1 declining scale to the top-10 finishers in Thursday night’s races.
Points were not the goal for Elliott, though. His Hendrick Motorsports team instead wanted to test his Chevrolet to see how strong it will be in Sunday’s big event.
“We didn’t say one word about points before the race,” Elliott said. “We just kind of set out and wanted to race, not ride around. I think sometimes you ride around and you don’t know what your car is like and if it’s going to be the way you want it for Sunday.
“We took chances and it worked out, so excited for Sunday.”
Jamie McMurray finished second as Chevrolet drivers went 1-2 at a track where Ford and Toyota are expected to dominate. Most people have picked Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski as the drivers to beat on Sunday, but neither got it done against Elliott.
“I think the Penske cars, if you have to make a list, that’s the top of the list,” McMurray said.
Kevin Harvick was third in a Ford and followed by Keselowski as Ford drivers still took six of the top 10 slots in the 21-car field.
Corey LaJoie earned one of the open positions in the Daytona 500, but it came with controversy. He ran into the back of Reed Sorenson, one of the drivers he was racing for the slot in the 500. It caused Sorenson to wreck.
“I know it looked like I meant to do it but I didn’t,” LaJoie said on his radio. “I was running the middle and he came down on me.”
He said he would have preferred not to have wrecked Sorenson, but insisted it was unintentional and noted the race was his first time in a Cup car at a plate track. LaJoie had to politic through December to get this ride, but still asked Jimmie Johnson to put in a good word for him to help him get a chance to race in the Daytona 500.
So, he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way of making Sunday’s race.
“I didn’t want to be sipping margaritas on the beach on Sunday. I wanted to be out there racing,” LaJoie said. “If that was my mom, I would probably spin her out to make the Daytona 500, too. That’s just frank. I’m sure I’m not going to be on Reed’s Christmas card list this year, but that’s all right.”
Sorenson was not pleased.
“I guess he felt like he did what he had to do to make the race,” Sorenson said. “I hope he’s proud of that part of it. There’s a lot of pressure going in to making this race. It’s a very big deal for a small team like ours.”
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