The field is officially set for Sunday’s running of the Daytona 500. Thursday night’s qualifying races had plenty of action, and shed a lot of light on what we can expect to happen in three days. Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin took the checkered flags with a pair of impressive drives. Here’s how it all happened…

Duel #1: Winner – 24 Chase Elliott

-I had been wondering if the 24’s speed was “real speed,” and what I mean by that is that I wasn’t sure if his pole qualifying speed was going to translate to race trim, pack speed. I think we all know the answer to that question. The 24 was able to grab the lead and hold it. Young Chase Elliott did a fantastic job to hold the top spot, and it seemed like the Hendrick cars had their handling issues figured out a little better.

-I was a little disappointed with the Toyota’s. The speed is obviously there (as we saw in the second duel) but I think they just couldn’t get all hooked up together like they did in The Clash. They almost seem to work better together as opposed to when they’re around other cars they look uncomfortable at times. I’m sure they’ll be fine come Sunday.

-The start was straight bananas. So much action right off the bat in this race. After the competition caution it seemed like the outside line couldn’t quite get going until the closing laps. It felt like the opposite happened in the second race. But you could tell right from the jump that the drivers were anxious to get going.

-Jamie McMurray has a fast car, and was really aggressive and shook things up at the front. Watch out for him Sunday, one of the best restrictor plate drivers in the series.

-Reed Sorenson had a hard lick in the closing laps. Thank God for the new SAFER barrier on the inside going into turn one, it  might have saved his life. Unfortunately for the 55 they were unable to race their way in, or get in on speed. Sorenson had some choice words for Corey Lajoie, who spun him out, but it didn’t look malignant from my seat.

Duel #2: Winner – 11 Denny Hamlin

-Pretty obvious, but the 88 and 11 are BAD FAST.

-Denny Hamlin had to go to the back of the pack after a penalty on pit road. He somehow made his way back up into the top 10 in just a few laps, without any teammates. The 11 was seemingly able to move and pass on his own, and then made a greatly timed move to pass Junior coming to the white flag.

-Speaking of the 88, Dale Jr. looked stout up front, leading 53 of 60 laps until being passed by Hamlin. The 88 car looks really, really strong, and Junior looked great back behind the wheel. He made a real smart move to not throw a block on Hamlin there at the end. No need to risk wrecking when you’re already set to start on the front row.

-I was 2/3’s right with my picks. Correct with Hamlin, and then kinda correct with the darkhorse pick of Ryan Blaney. The 21 looked real good up front early in the second run, contesting for the lead with Junior. Unfortunately that contact with Ragan and Johnson cut a tire and took the 21 out of contention. But those Wood Brothers guys are always quick.

Observations heading into Sunday…

-It seemed like handling wasn’t much of an issue. There were a few great saves by guys that prevented multiple crashes. The grip will obviously go away on Sunday during the day when the sun is shining on the track. Look for cars to be sliding a little bit more.

-There will be a bunch of strong cars coming from the back to the front early in the race. Guys like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard, and Kasey Kahne will have to battle through traffic to get up front.

-I’m interested to see if drivers pay less attention to the stage results because it’s the 500, or if they are going to be battling for points. Will be interesting to see how much action we get from the drop of the green flag.

-You’d be crazy to not bet on one of the 11, 88, 24 or 2. To me, those were the four strongest cars tonight.

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