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DAYTONA, BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Former winners and team mates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson won Daytona 500 qualifying races on Thursday, underscoring their status as contenders for the Great American Race.
The front of the grid for NASCAR's showcase race is star-studded and deep with former champions and some of stock car racing's biggest names lining up for the sport's biggest prize.
With three-time champion Jeff Gordon earning pole and Johnson the number two spot last weekend everyone else was left fighting for position in twin races dubbed the Duel 150s.
The results set the rest of 43 car field that will take the green flag at the high-banked 2.5 mile Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt started the first heat in 25th and last due to his car failing post qualifying inspection last Sunday but it did not stop the defending 500 champion from locking up a second row spot.
“I’m so glad to be able to get through the Duel in one piece because I know how good this race car is,” said Earnhardt. “We have a couple more practices to go through and try to stay out of trouble during those and put this thing on the grid.”
Under a unique qualifying format Johnson keeps his second-place starting position due to his qualifying run last Sunday.
That left the other spot on row two to Kyle Busch, who finished second behind Johnson in heat two to earn a fourth place starting position for the big race.
“It’s huge to have the week like we’ve had” said six-time NASCAR champion Johnson, who dominated the second, 60-lap 150 mile, event.
In the second Duel, Denny Hamlin tangled with Danica Patrick’s car causing serious damage to her Chevrolet. Patrick and Hamlin also came together during Wednesday's practise forcing her into a backup car for qualifying.
Patrick limped into the pits for repairs then re-entered the race with just a few laps to run and was pushed to a 10th place finish by her Stewart-Haas team mate Kurt Busch crossing the line under her own power.
Pole sitter in 2013, Patrick will start Sunday's race from the 10th row.
“It was all going pretty smooth until three to go, four to go," said Patrick. "I said yesterday, it's horrible that it's left up to other people and what they can do to you to whether or not you get in the race or not."
Editing by Steve Keating in Toronto