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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first of two Thursday night qualifying races to set up a 1-2-3 start for Hendrick Motorsports in the Daytona 500.
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson swept the front row Sunday in the first round of qualifying. Then Earnhardt, the defending Daytona 500 winner, won the first 150-mile Budweiser Duel to take the third starting spot in Sunday's season-opening race.
"We've had a great car all week," Earnhardt said. "I'm so glad to get through the duel in one piece because I know how good this car is. We're going to have a fun day on Sunday."
Gordon, the four-time NASCAR champion, finished second in the duel and was followed by Joey Logano, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer wrecked during the first round of qualifying and had to race his way in to the Daytona 500.
"If it wasn't for adversity, I wouldn't have any feeling in life," Bowyer said. "It feels good to finally get a good run."
For Gordon, it kept his car clean and sent him into his final Daytona 500 in position to lead the field to the green flag. Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, will retire at the end of the season.
He said he's so far approached this week as business as usual with no nostalgia.
"Right now, it's mainly routine," Gordon said. "On Sunday, when I get up that morning, think about that day, it will come into my mind. Other than that, everything has been pretty much routine."
Racing into the Daytona 500 through their finish in the duel were: Landon Cassill (9th), Cole Whitt (10th), Michael McDowell (12th), JJ Yeley (13th) and Ty Dillon (16th).
It will be the first Daytona 500 start for Ty Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress.
"It means so much, it's hard to explain," Dillon said. "I've been coming here since I was a little kid watching my grandfather's cars race and win races. I've seen so much history go down here. I'm in the Daytona 500. You don't know how much this means to me. This is so awesome."
For Cassill, making the Daytona 500 is a huge boon for underfunded Hillman Racing. Last-place in the 43-car field last season paid $292,311.
"You all know what the prize money looks like, 75 percent of our budget is prize money," Cassill said. "When a majority of your team's budget is off the prize money, there's a lot of things that have already been purchased that just haven't been paid for yet. The check that's coming after Sunday's race is going to pay for that."
With so many drivers racing their way into the 500, Danica Patrick was forced into a defensive role of having to race her way in via the second duel.
Also on the bubble are Casey Mears, who blew an engine early in the first duel, and AJ Allmendinger, who made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship last season but was involved in an early accident.
"I'm guessing we're going home unless something major happens in the second race," Mears said. "It rips your heart out."
Reigning rookie of the year Kyle Larson needed a late push to finish 15th and earn a spot in Sunday's race. He had some slight damage to his car from contact with Trevor Bayne, but the incident brought out a caution that allowed his team to fix a vibration that had been slowing him down.