(Daytona Beach, Fla.) - In the second closest finish in recent Gatorade Duel history, Jimmie Johnson was able to hold off a charging Kevin Harvick to win the first of two 150-mile qualifying races. The defending series champion dropped to the rear of the field at the start of Thursday’s race, but in the end Johnson was right up front thanks to a bit of strategy from crew chief Chad Knaus.
When Michael Waltrip brought out the final caution of the day (more on that later), the leaders hit pit road for tires before the final four lap shootout – that is everyone but Johnson and Max Papis. Knaus told his driver to stay out, while Papis had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
On the final restart, Papis’ car stalled the high line, and Kyle Busch jumped to the outside of Johnson to battle for the lead. With little help from behind on the top, Johnson maintained the lead as the field jockeyed for
The big winner in those closing laps was Budweiser Shootout winner Kevin Harvick. After shuffling Jamie McMurray up the hill in Turn 2, Harvick set his sights on the leaders. With a push from teammate Clint Bowyer, the Richard Childress Racing teammates got a great run down the backstretch on the last lap and moved to the outside of Johnson to take the win. As the pack came to the checkered flag the fans rose to their feet as Johnson and Harvick finished just 0.006 seconds apart.
With the majority of the attention placed on the photo finish up front, Michael McDowell and Papis celebrated as they raced their way into the Great American Race.
Unfortunately, two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip lost control of the No. 51 Toyota on Lap 54 of 60 exiting Turn 4. Waltrip slid down the track and nosed into the inside wall. Attempting to make his final Daytona 500, Waltrip now has to wait. If Scott Speed or Bobby Labonte are able to race their way in during the second Duel race, Waltrip will be able to fall back on his qualifying time and make the show. If not, Waltrip will be out of luck and sitting out of the race he won two times.