One of the reasons the Daytona 500 is different from most other NASCAR races is that it qualifies most of the field through two 150-mile qualifying races. Only the front row is decided in traditional single-seater qualifying.
Sometimes that leads to thrilling races, perilous overtaking and jaw-dropping spins. Other times it can be a single file race until a spirited but unsuccessful attempt to take the lead on the final corner. On Thursday, you had one of each.
Race one was a bit of a yawner with Joey Logano holding off Christopher Bell to win by just 0.018 seconds. But it was race two that provided the drama of the night when Kyle Busch led on lap 40 of 60 with Daniel Suarez inches from his bumper. Thumbs became non-existent, sending Busch into the wall and out of the race.
There were six cars involved in the incident, but no one was more affected than Austin Hill, which was on course to qualify for its first 500. Hill was one of six drivers who did not automatically qualify for the race but had to work their way through They are said to be ‘open’ or ‘unlicensed’.
There were four places available and Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana had already earned their places by setting the two fastest qualifying times on Wednesday. This meant that the top two runners not named Johnson or Pastrana would also qualify if they were the top open finishers.
But Hill was recovered in the Busch crash along with Suarez, Pastrana, Riley Herbst and Justin Haley. Suarez and Haley were able to come back but the others were out.
Aric Almirola won the race by 0.0122 over Austin Cindric, winner of the 500 last year.
The beneficiary was Conor Daly, a full-time Indy Car driver, who was hoping to race in his second NASCAR race and his first Daytona 500.
“When we went there, the car was bouncing,” Daly said. “I had no idea what was going on. I thought the transmission was broken, and [crew chief] Tony [Eury, Jr.] just made it better every time [we stopped]. We were lucky with the yellows to try to gain experience, but it’s pretty crazy.”
The other last-ditch qualifier for Sunday’s race was Zane Smith of Huntington Beach, who finished eighth in the first race.
“Yeah, my emotions are definitely weird, how important this event is,” Smith said. “You don’t realize it’s just coming until you make an attempt. It was crazy, all the media, and all the hype behind it.
This is the first time the defending Cup Series champions (Logano), Xfinity (Ty Gibbs) and Truck (Smith) have all competed in the Daytona 500.
Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, finished 14th and will start 29th on Sunday.
“I wish we had finished a little better, but we had a ton of great reps for the team…” Johnson said. “I have new guys over the wall, new spotter, new team manager, new team – to have that behind us is really good and I think it was a really successful day.”
When the Daytona schedule came out, many drivers complained that their first chance to race with other cars would be in qualifying on Thursday. The event is called SpeedWeeks, but the claim comes from a technicality because the 500 is on Sunday, the start of the new week. It’s more like SpeedDays. Five to be exact.
“We don’t have much time on the circuit anymore,” Logano said. “We did not practice [Wednesday], so we didn’t do a tour. So you pull in the first lap and you bump and bump and you’re like, I hope she drives well when you get there.
“I want to go back and… come up with a game plan for training [Friday] and how we can tune our car a little better. Not bad. Of course it’s fast. Handles quite well. …Just kind of little things you can fine-tune, which is a nice place, isn’t it? »
Ford won both races on Thursday. The constructor have won nine of the last 12 duels and occupy seven of the top 11 places in the starting XI. But Chevrolet has both front-row seats. It will take 500 miles on Sunday to figure out where the best place to be is. Or maybe that’s who’s luckier.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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