DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. >> Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first qualifying race Thursday night for the Daytona 500 to earn a starting spot on the second row for NASCAR's biggest event.
It was Earnhardt's 17th career win at Daytona International Speedway, and came on the 15th anniversary of his father's death. The late Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and led all drivers with 34 career victories at Daytona.
"It's another win at Daytona for the Earnhardts, adding to the legacy," Earnhardt said in victory lane. "We're up here in the 50s now."
Earnhardt dominated the 150-mile race and easily darted around leader Denny Hamlin with six laps remaining to cruise to the victory. Earnhardt led 43 of the 60 laps in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, and Hamlin seemed to be the only driver with a car strong enough to challenge the No. 88.
Hamlin won last week's exhibition race, but his Toyota didn't have the help Hamlin needed when Earnhardt was ready to make a pass for the win. Hamlin finished fifth.
Defending Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano was second and Ryan Blaney was third. Blaney had early issues with a loose wheel, but had assured himself a spot in Sunday's Daytona 500 based on qualifying speed. Still, his Wood Brothers Racing team got him back on the lead lap and he was in position to work with Logano to make a late run at Earnhardt.
Instead, the order didn't change and Blaney's finish opened up a spot in the Daytona 500 for another driver — Michael McDowell, who finished 14th.
"It's so intense. When Blaney had a problem there, we were counting on him racing his way in," McDowell said. "I can't tell you what it means to make the Daytona 500. We're racing Sunday and I can't wait to get going."
It's the third time in seven years that McDowell has raced his way into the 500. He had to use a block on Cole Whitt, who with Josh Wise was battling McDowell for the only transfer spot out of the first qualifying race, to preserve his position. The block led to Whitt spinning and bringing out the only caution of the race.
Whitt and Wise both failed to make the race.