By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Willy Auchmoody says The Money Team is going to subject themselves to liver damage on Thursday night after making the Daytona 500 in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Conventional wisdom says Auchmoody, the general manager, and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. should actually be pulling an all-nighter of a different kind and doing whatever it takes to get the ride height issues addressed on the No. 50 and for driver Conor Daly.
Pace laps for the second qualifying race began with Daly bouncing along the backstretch. This came one night after the car even failed to make it on the track for Daytona 500 qualifying when an electrical short burned a hole in the oil line.
The car only cleared tech at 4:50!
Daly was a lap down by 30 laps to go and was two laps down and unlikely to overcome Austin Hill, the only other driver racing for an open spot, when a crash at the front of the field eliminated the Beard Motorsports team and immediately put the Money Team into the Daytona 500.
In a span of seconds, they were two laps down with no shot to immediately in the Great American Race before the checkered flag.
“Well, we were inherently unlucky for the last 36 hours, but we got lucky,” Daly said. “I wish I could have said that I drove it in on pure pace, but it was just crazy.
“When we went out there, the car was bouncing around. I had no idea what was going on. I thought the drivetrain was broken, and Tony just made it better every time. We got lucky with the yellows to try to get some experience, but it is pretty crazy.”
Auchmoody is understandably excited, even while expressing equal disappointment for his friends at Beard Motorsports, because making this race two years in a row is a major victory for the development of the organization.
“I worked with (Beard Motorsports) and they’re family,” Auchmoody said. “Everyone who works on that car is a dear friend. Linda and Mark (Beard) Sr., may he rest in peace, I loved that man and he taught me a lot and it made its way into our effort here.
“This was like the worst-case scenario for us getting into the race at their expense basically. … Now we have two days to get this thing better so we can make it to 500 miles. We’re in our second Daytona 500. It’s only our fifth race and two of them are the Daytona frickin’ 500 so we’re excited.”
Making the car better falls on Tony Eury Jr., who won the Daytona 500 in 2004 as car chief with his father and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and has conviction that they can get to work with practice time ahead of them.
“It’s just a matter of me and him working together and I mean, we don’t have the simulation and the things that these bigger teams have or their alliances,” Eury said. “So it’s kind of like one of them deals where an hour of practice really goes a long way for us.
“So, I think by Sunday we’ll be in the ballpark.”
For all the excitement and good vibes from The Money Team, it was the opposite mood for Hill and the Beards, because they know they shouldn’t have even been in that position in the first place. Daly was literally two laps down.
Hill could have lost the draft, lost a lap, and still been a lap ahead of Daly. But he wanted to mix it up in preparation for a Sunday that won’t come now.
“When I saw the wreck happened, there was a lot of dirt kicked up on the track and I kind of lost sight of where the other cars that were wreckin’, got past the dirt and just lost traction,” Hill said. “I don’t know if the 15 tagged me or not. We just started spinning and the right front lower (control arm) was broke and there was no reason for us to even be in the pack.
“The 50 was multiple laps down, and just dumb on my part, and it was stupid that I was even in there. I was just trying to learn for the Daytona 500 and now we’re not even in it.”
Even more peculiar was the cause of the crash in the first place, Kyle Busch getting pushed on the right rear for two laps from Daniel Suarez until he went around in front of the field, collecting Travis Pastrana and Hill.
Pastrana was already locked into the Daytona 500 by virtue of his qualifying speed.
Busch had led a race high 28 laps when he got shoved around on Lap 41.
“I don’t know why,” Busch said. “We were single file. There was no pressure from the outside. There was nothing happening. Just getting pushed for two straight laps and finally, it didn’t want to hang on anymore.”
Suarez took responsibility, albeit with the caveat that he was getting hard pushes from behind by Kyle Larson.
“It was unfortunate,” Suarez said. “You never want that to happen. Two laps before that, they told me on the radio, I want you to start making time. (Larson) was being more aggressive to me, pushing me, and I thought that (Busch) was actually dragging brake because I was able to push him so easy.
“But I guess he wasn’t. I was getting so much energy from (Larson) that I was just pushing too hard.”
And through it all was Daly, bouncing along the superstretch, benefiting from it all.
“This race, I’ve watched it for so many years and so much crazy stuff can happen, and thankfully we were on the right side of the craziness,” Daly said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
With that said, maybe it’s best for the all-nighter to come on Sunday night.
ZANE SMITH GAINS OTHER OPEN SPOT
The open spot from the first duel was equally straightforward, with Chandler Smith costing himself a chance to make the Daytona 500 as soon as he exited pit road too fast during his pit stop. At the time, he was trailing Zane Smith, who he needed to beat, but ultimately never gave himself a chance.
The race stayed green the rest of the way and Zane Smith gained the first open spot.
“Yeah, my emotions are definitely weird, just how big this event is,” Zane said. “You don’t realize it just coming until you’re making an attempt at it. It’s been crazy, all the media, and just all the hype behind it.”
Chandler Smith took full responsibility for his mistake.
“It was a good stop for my first stop, as far as my braking point and getting into the box, gained a lot of positions because we went fuel only and everyone else took two tires,” he said. “Lined up third on our Chevy pack and just got greedy man.
“Leaving pit road and thought we were in a really good spot, that this was promising and just took much between the yellow lines, it’s my … it’s on me.”
As a result of Zane Smith making the field, and Ty Gibbs graduating to the Cup Series, all three reigning NASCAR national touring champions are represented in the field on Sunday – a NASCAR first. Joey Logano also won the first Duel.
Zane Smith didn’t want to break that up.
“Yeah, definitely when I heard that, I didn’t want to let everyone down because I was the only one that had to get in, obviously,” he said. “Happy we were able to get in, and we have a pretty good starting spot, honestly. I don’t know who I’ll share a row with yet, but excited to race this Wellcare Ford Mustang on Sunday.”