By Christian Koelle, Staff Writer
Noah Gragson and Jacques Villeneuve Bluegreen Vacations Duel’s became just a bit easier Wednesday Night.
The duo became the first of the open cars to seal their spots for Sunday’s Daytona 500. They were the fastest two of the six open cars in Wednesday’s qualifying session. After missing the Daytona 500 due to an accident in the Duel’s in 2021, Gragson turned the fastest lap of the open cars with a 50.689-second (177.553-mph) lap around the Daytona International Speedway.
“It’s really emotional being able to make the race after not making it last year,” Gragson said, adding, “Last year not making the race, makes this year that much more special. … I really hope to make the Beard family proud this weekend.”
Villeneuve, the 1997 Formula 1 World Champion, edged Kaz Grala by .084-seconds to punch his ticket to the Daytona 500. It will be both Gragson and Villeneuve’s first Daytona 500.
“I was convinced we didn’t have the speed to get in on time, and I thought we would then have to fight it through the Duels,” said Villeneuve. “Somehow today the car was a lot easier to drive. It was easy to be smooth because we got in by not a lot. It was very, very close. It was all a matter of getting right up to speed coming out of turn two, going through the gears, getting away from the wall to not block the air, just getting these extra few revs and that made the difference.”
“Obviously, it’s not a win,” added Villeneuve. “It’s not like winning the Indy 500 or the F1 championship, but at this point in my career, the last time I tried to qualify here was 14 years ago, just to make the show is incredible because it’s a small team. We didn’t link up with a big team to get the car ready and it’s highly unexpected to be able to make it on time, so it ranks right after these big wins.,”
Grala, Greg Biffle, JJ Yeley, and Timmy Hill will have to race their way into the Daytona 500 in the Duels. Two of them will qualify while the other two will pack up and head home.
In Duel No. 1, Grala and Yeley will battle it out for one of the final two spots while in Duel No. 2 Biffle and Hill will battle it out for the final spot. Should Villeneuve and Gragson finish the highest of the open cars in their selected races, Grala and Biffle will race in the Daytona 500. Should either Villeneuve or Gragson have to fall back on their time, the highest finishing driver in each duel of the open cars would make the Daytona 500.
The Bluegreen Vacations Duels will go live on FOX Sports 1 beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET with NASCAR RaceDay. Duel No. 1 will kick off at 7 p.m. ET with Duel No. 2 kicking off right after. The Duels will also be broadcasted live on MRN starting at 6 p.m. ET.