By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It all comes down to this.
Just two spots remain up for grabs in the starting lineup for Sunday’s 65th running of the Daytona 500, with four drivers looking to punch their ticket into the Great American Race on Thursday night in the Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona.
Six drivers came into the week needing to either post a quick time in single-car qualifying or race their way in through the Duels, but last night seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and action sports superstar Travis Pastrana locked up their spot in Sunday’s main event.
That leaves defending Truck Series champion Zane Smith, Truck regular Chandler Smith, Xfinity Series regular Austin Hill, and NTT IndyCar Series regular Conor Daly to battle it out for the final two spots.
Zane Smith and Chandler Smith will face off in the first of the two Duel races, with each driver coming off a vastly different qualifying night less than 24 hours ago.
Zane, driving the No. 36 entry for Front Row Motorsports, posted the third fastest single car time among the drivers not locked in, giving him at least a couple of laps of track time in his Ford.
“Crazy… especially when it’s your first lap is qualifying, and that one is going to go by pretty quickly,” Zane said of heading into the Duels with limited track time. “Pretty much your second lap is going to be in the Duels. Hopefully we qualify on-time, but who knows?
“Regardless, I know, FRM has always shown strength on Superspeedways and the Fords have always shown strength with how well they work together. Hopefully we can be in a Duel with a lot of Fords and transfer in.”
Meanwhile, Chandler was not so lucky as a mechanical issue precluded him from making a lap in qualifying in his Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, so when the green flag drops on Thursday night, that will be the first laps he will have on the Daytona high banks.
“Kaulig Racing has got a really good track record as plate racers as an organization,” Chandler said. “From Xfinity over to Cup, they’ve been pretty solid. They’re still really green to the Cup Series, so we haven’t built up that portfolio that we have in the Xfinity Series as far as the reputation as being strong on plate races, but it’s definitely got really good over the past few years they’ve been in the series.
“For me, I know if I make it into the race, it’s going to be good. I just need to make it in.”
Then comes the second Duel race, which will pit Hill and Daly against each other for the final spot in the biggest race in all of stock car racing.
Much like the two Smiths, Hill and Daly had similar fates in single car qualifying on Wednesday night.
Piloting a Chevrolet for Beard Motorsports, Hill was able to lay down a lap in qualifying Wednesday, with the two-time winner at Daytona (Xfinity – 2022, Trucks – 2019) looking to put his plate racing experience to good use on Thursday night and race his way in.
Then there’s Daly, who didn’t even get to roll his No. 50 Chevrolet from The Money Team onto the grid Wednesday night to try and make a qualifying attempt.
Daly’s issue came with an electrical short in his car in the hours before qualifying, which in turn caused a leak in an oil line on his machine. With the slim pickings on parts for the Next Gen cars, the team was not able to source a new one in time for qualifying, leaving Daly to have to just sit on the sidelines and watch.
Though Daly has made laps in a Next Gen car before at the Charlotte ROVAL last fall, he has yet to turn a lap in anger at Daytona and will have to make his first laps when the green flag flies on his Duel race and the pack storms into Turn 1.
Determining which of these drivers will be able to advance on to the Daytona 500 is not as simple as being the fastest of the open cars in your respective Duel, but instead the presence of Johnson and Pastrana in the Duels brings in a whole host of scenarios to whittle the field down.
The path is clear for Chandler Smith and Daly, they must be the top finishing open car in their respective Duel to make it in. With their mechanical issues in Wednesday qualifying, both drivers have no other path to the starting grid.
As for Zane Smith and Hill, things are a little bit murkier:
Zane makes it in if he bests Chandler and Johnson in the first Duel or if Pastrana is the top open car in the second Duel. Pastrana being the top open car in Duel No. 2 would allow Zane to fall back on his qualifying speed from Wednesday night.
Hill makes it in if he is the top open car in the second Duel or if Johnson/Zane Smith are the top finishing car in the first Duel and Pastrana is the top finisher in the second Duel.
Regardless, it will be a waiting game throughout the night to see how everything shakes out and who will have to pack up and head home early.
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