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Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon finish in top spots in Daytona 500 qualifying

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NASCAR gets ready to start its 2021 season on Sunday with the Daytona 500, the only Super Bowl-like event that’s held at the beginning of the competition year rather than the end. The start of a season also brings with it the hope that the reset button has been punched with a new year.

There was that sense of normality during Thursday’s twin 150-mile qualifying races to determine spots 3-40. There were people and there was rain, both staples at the Daytona International Speedway.

The infield was its usual collection of RVs and campers and there were a limited number of fans in the grandstand. For Sunday’s race, the track plans to operate at about 30% occupancy, or about 30,000 fans. And as for the other standard, there was a lengthy rain delay that held up the start of the second duel by more than two hours. There is a 70% chain of rain on Sunday, concentrated around race time.

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Aric Almirola was expectedly excited, having won the first of the two races.

“It’s great to have fans in the stands again,” Almirola said. “We raced a lot last year with no fans. When I actually drove in [Thursday] afternoon, seeing all the people pulling in to park, to come watch the races tonight, it … gave me goosebumps. It got me a little bit emotional knowing we’re going to have people in the stands cheering and watching and excited about our sport. It’s good to get back to a little bit of normal.”

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By virtue of winning the first duel, he will start on the inside of row two on Sunday. Austin Dillon, winner of the second duel in overtime, will be on the outside.

Alex Bowman and William Byron already secured their slots on the front row of Sunday’s race by virtue of Wednesday night’s timed qualifying, the first time it has been held in the evening. Both drivers are with Hendrick Motorsports.

Of course, winning a 150-mile race and winning a 500-mile race are two totally different tasks.

“[Thursday’s win] gives us a lot of confidence,” Almirola said. “We know we have a fast car. It drives really well. It handles well. It pushes. It gets pushed well. All of the things that are important to be successful at Daytona. Gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence going into the race on Sunday.

“But there’s so much that can happen in this race that’s out of your control. … We’ve got to do all the little things right on Sunday. We’ve got to execute on pit road, we’ve got to have the right strategy, no mistakes, then hope that you don’t get caught up in somebody else’s mess.”

Almirola has been on the top circuit for 13 years having won two of his 353 starts. His best finish in the Daytona 500 was a fourth in 2017. He won the summer race at Daytona in 2014 for his first win.

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The duels are as much about preserving your car as they about trying to win the race. Pole-sitter Bowman, with nothing to gain with a win, was content to finish 20th in the 22-driver race.

The first race went off without a caution with Almirola leading 52 of the 60 laps. There were two cautions in the second duel.

“It’s hard to lead that many laps and win the race,” Almirola said. “Usually when you lead that many laps, everybody behind you figuring out how to mount a charge, and you end up losing the race in the last lap.”

Despite some last lap jostling on Thursday, Almirola held on. Sunday will be much more difficult.

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