DAYTONA BEACH, FL (AP) – Tony Stewart has won the first qualifying race for the Daytona 500.

The defending NASCAR champion held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Thursday’s first 150-mile race. The last lap was marred by an accident involving Danica Patrick.

Patrick was hit by Aric Almirola and the contact sent her car sliding across the track and into an inside retaining wall. The contact lifted her Chevrolet off its wheels, but she was able to climb from the car unscathed.

Michael McDowell and Robby Gordon were the drivers who raced their way into Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500.

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip wrecked as he tried to return to the track after a late pit stop. The accident eliminated him from Sunday’s race.

Listen to the Daytona 500 locally on 105.3 The Fan, Sunday February 26th. Prerace show starts at 11:00 a.m. the green flag drops at noon (cst).

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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