By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Heading into tomorrow’s Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona International Speedway, we already know that Justin Haley and Brendan Gaughan are locked in for the 62nd Daytona 500 after being the fastest open cars in last Sunday’s time trials.
However, the biggest angle are those five guys on the outside looking in as only two spots are left. The immense pressure of racing among themselves to be the top guy in their respective Duel races is there but each their own story.
In Duel Race No. 1, that’ll be the most diciest one as three drivers, with completely different levels of Cup experience, are competing for that one spot which are Chad Finchum, Reed Sorenson, and Daniel Suarez.
For Finchum, this is his first attempt in the “Great American Race,” driving for Carl Long’s MBM Motorsports. Not only that, it’s his first attempt at a NASCAR Cup Series race since Bristol in August 2018 where he finished 33rd for Long.
The 25-year-old knows he has his work cut out for him and is up for the major task at hand.
“There’s obviously pressure but by the time someone usually gets to the Cup Series,” Finchum said during Media Day Wednesday. “Even in their first year like myself – we’re still considered a rookie, but you’ve been racing for so long that you kind of learn how to translate that butterfly feeling into performance on the track.
“There are nerves associated with but there’s really nothing to be nervous about. Just go out there and buckle in to do our thing.”
As far as what Finchum will do during the race, he compared it to the game of football by doing film study and will likely have to scramble for much of the night in order to beat Suarez and the decade-plus veteran Sorenson of Premium Motorsports.
“We’re going to take the snap and know where receivers are are going to be, but we might be in scramble pretty early. It’s kind of the same thing here,” Finchum said. “I went back yesterday and watched last year’s duels and picked up on a few things. If it goes like that, mostly everybody are going to be conservative and single file line up on the top.
“Looks like a lot of moves have to be made under caution or restarts. If you have an opportunity to have cautions. It’s going to be tough. There’s maybe a plan in place but I think we’re going to scramble most of the time.”
The 500 is the only race Finchum is confirmed to race but will run more Cup races throughout the season, saying that he hopes Bristol is one of them considering he’s a Tennessee native.
“Nothing has been set in stone,” Finchum. “Carl made mentions that I’ll definitely be back in the Cup car this year off-and-on. I have no races set and I’m hoping that I can get at least Bristol being that’s my home track. I’ll maybe press something for that.”
On paper, it seems that Suarez is the odds-on favorite of being the best of the trio as he feels the least amount of pressure because he has driven in top-tier equipment his entire Cup career with Joe Gibbs Racing (2017-18) and Stewart-Haas Racing (2019).
However, the main concern boils down to how will his year-old No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota Camry will fare in the pack. Something that he’s aware as they don’t have to the top-tier equipment like the big dogs from the Toyota camp such.
“I feel a little pressure but not that much. I have to control what I can control and do my job,” Suarez said. “It’s very unfortunate about the charter situation and the way it works. We’ve been actually in the market for a couple of months to buy one, but there was nothing for sale. Tough situation but that’s how it works. Eventually, we can find the right one.”
Suarez did remained confident that his year-old car will be pretty sporty in the draft along with a strong Toyota engine but again described the setbacks he’ll be dealing with.
“We don’t have the car, the body and the chassis that is new or greatest car that we can lower the car that much. But when we’re in the draft, we’re as good as anyone. We need an engine for the draft and the car for raw speed. Unfortunately, we don’t have the car but we have the engine. We feel good about it but we just need to execute, have a good stop and control what I can control.”
If there’s anytime in his racing career Suarez was in a situation to seal the deal, no question it brought flashbacks to his 2016 Xfinity Series title at Homestead. That night, he had to beat Justin Allgaier, Erik Jones and Elliott Sadler, but in the end it was Suarez who hoisted the championship.
“I feel it’s kind of similar. We have to beat those guys and similar mindset that you must have,” Suarez said. “You have to go out there and execute. No mistakes and control what you can control.”
Meanwhile in Duel Race No. 2, it’s an all out war between Finchum’s teammate Timmy Hill and Rick Ware Racing’s J.J. Yeley.
Yeley will be entering his 16th season in Cup and slated to run the full campaign. Although he has the years under his belt compared to Hill’s eight seasons, there’s still that nerve of trying to make his first 500 since 2015. That’s because of the current package that reminded him of the wicker days of the 2000s of how chaotic the runs can get which has resulted in many accidents.
” I think this particular package is going to be a little bit of an unknown,” Yeley said. “It’s kind of more like the package we’ve seen when we used to have those roof blades on the cars when you get huge drafts or runs on cars which can also create a lot of controversy and some excitement as we’ve seen from the Clash.”
Fortunately for Yeley, he’ll have tremendous help from his RWR teammate B.J. McLeod, who dealt with tech issues during qualifying, resulting him not to set in a timed lap. This does lift up his confidence level as they’ll likely have a team meeting before the Duel commences.
“Having those extra little factors on my side makes me feel a lot more confident,” Yeley on having McLeod in his Duel race. “The three cars that are open and having Brendan Gaughan being locked in on speed, I feel like he’s going to be very easy knowing that he’s locked in and this being his last Daytona 500.
“Realistically, it’s going to be a dog fight between me and Timmy. We’ll see what happens and hope for the best.”
McLeod said that he will try to help Yeley out but after having a transmission failure after working together for two laps last Saturday, there isn’t much to rely on when it comes to working in a draft.
“I don’t have a lot of info and data to know how well we’re going to draft together but my goal is to help him get into the Daytona 500,” McLeod said. “Whatever he needs, whatever the team needs, I’ll be there to make that happen for them.”
Not just McLeod but also one-off teammate David Ragan is also in the second Duel race, something Ragan didn’t knew until asked about it. He’s sure that there will be a conversation about it before Thursday’s Duels but if it’s convenient to help Yeley, he’ll contribute.
“We got to take acre of the No. 36 Ford and that’s my job,” Ragan said. “If it’s convenient to help out a teammate or two. Even help out a friend that needs to get out, but I think first and foremost, it’s myself and all of my Ford teammates.”
Given the recent history of how the Duel races have turned out, being there at the end and working with a fellow driver with the same manufacturer is essential for Yeley in order to be in the right position to beat Hill.
“Watching some of the videos of past races and the way that things shake out,” Yeley said. “I know it’s going to be a matter of if the race is probably going single file at some point. The big thing is staying in the lead draft until the later stages of the race when it’s going to get more dicey and make sure that we are in position to be the lead car that’s going to make the race come Sunday.”
The stage is set for those who must race their way into the Daytona 500 Thursday. Two will get to be a part of the prestigious race while three will load up their truck and head out of the tunnel empty handed. Live coverage of the two 60-lap races will begin at 7:00 pm EST on FS1.