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Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins Duel 1; Michael McDowell makes 500 field

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Winning a 150-mile duel qualifying race for the Daytona 500 is nothing new for Dale Earnhardt Jr. After all, he's now done it five times.

But Earnhardt's victory Thursday in the first of this year's Can-Am Duels at Daytona International Speedway was especially meaningful for the popular star, because it came on the 15th anniversary of his father's death at the same track.

"It's real special," Earnhardt admitted. "I try not to make too big a deal, but I was thinking about that. I'm guilty of daydreaming a bit about winning this race tonight because of the date.

"That's very special to me, and I was glad that nothing bad happened, we didn't tear our car up, because that would have been embarrassing on a day like this."

Earnhardt's five duel wins trail only the six recorded by Jeff Gordon, and, inevitably, the record of 12 set by his father.

Earnhardt is the first driver to win a duel race two years in a row since Gordon did it in 2006 and 2007. He did it by leading 43 of 60 laps to triumph by 0.183 seconds over a charging Joey Logano. Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.

Meanwhile, Michael McDowell locked up one of the prized starting spots for Sunday's race for a non-chartered entry by finishing 14th in the Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet. Blaney had already earned a guaranteed berth in the race by posting the fastest qualifying speed among non-charter teams in his Wood Brothers Ford.

Earnhardt took the lead from pole qualifier Chase Elliott on the third lap and led until Cole Whitt spun on Lap 44 to bring out the only caution of the race. After losing the lead to Hamlin during a round of pit stops, Earnhardt made a poor restart and was briefly in danger of losing touch with the front of the field.

But in typical Earnhardt fashion, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet methodically worked its way back up, and Junior reclaimed the point with a decisive inside move in the tri-oval to start the 55th lap.

Aided by a push from fellow Ford driver Blaney, Logano made a late charge at Earnhardt, but came up short.

"I knew how important it was to keep the lead, so I did everything I could," Earnhardt said. "I had to get aggressive with the blocking. Nothing too crazy, and I'm glad it didn't have to get that way.

"This car is something special and I was so nervous today about tearing it up," he added. "I told Rick [team owner Rick Hendrick] this is one he might want to keep track of to put in the museum one day because it's done some good things."

Elliott acquitted himself well in his first official start in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet he took over from the retired Gordon, taking sixth place.

Elliott was guaranteed pole position when he posted the fastest single-lap speed Sunday. But he still mixed it up with the veterans as he prepares for the start of his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series.

"Just a lot of things learned for me," the 20-year-old son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott said. "I got into positions, had a few things happen that I should have stopped before they did happen. Dale Jr. was really fast -- he just does a good job working the air. That is just something I struggle with."

Meanwhile, fellow rookie Blaney starred, overcoming a loose left rear wheel to take third place despite already being locked in to the 500 field as the fastest non-charter qualifier.

Blaney lost a lap, but regained it when the only caution of the race flew for Whitt's spin.

"We knew we were locked in before, but it's nice to know we raced our way in," Blaney said. "Luckily we got a caution at the right point to get back on the lead lap where we could go racing for it.

"We made some good ground at the end and it was a good recovery for our race team."

The only real drama surrounded which of the other three non-charter cars would transfer into the 500. McDowell was aggressively holding off Whitt when Whitt's Toyota snapped into a lazy spin. Although it never contacted the wall, the rough ride over the banking caused enough damage to force the No. 98 Toyota to retire.

"I've been on the other side where I've been loading up and going home Thursday night," McDowell said. "Tonight was nerve-wracking; it wasn't an easy one by any means. You make a plan and it all changes when you get out there. That's how it was tonight.

"It's challenging the way it is this year for the open [non-charter] cars, especially at Daytona," he continued. "But we knew what our job was tonight. If we beat the No. 30 [Josh Wise] and the 98, we would have a spot in the Daytona 500 no matter where the 21 [Blaney] finished, and that's what we did."

McDowell's transfer into the 500 was a big story, but as usual at Daytona after a Thursday duel, everyone was talking about another Earnhardt victory.

"Another win at Daytona for the Earnhardts," marveled Dale Jr. "We keep adding to the legacy.

"We're up there in the 50s now with all the wins, so I'm real glad to be able to do that."

The actual number is 51 in all forms of racing at Daytona for the Earnhardts: 34 for father and 17 for son.

He heads into Sunday as a strong favorite to claim his third Daytona 500 crown.