By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s quite the journey both Richard Childress Racing drivers Daniel Hemric and reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick has had. From both running Brad Keselowski Racing’s No. 19 Ford F-150 in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series at some point to now making their Daytona 500 debuts Sunday.
Each have their own tale on how they’re approaching this race, but their goal are the same. That is going out to join a slim list of rookies that have won the biggest race in NASCAR, and simply surviving the madness that accompanies the event.
In the case of Hemric, it’ll be his first ever national series win as he’s showcased his fast pace in both Trucks and Xfinity despite having a zero on the win column. He’ll be one of three full-time rookies competing for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors, which many view him as the favorite to win the award and looking forward battling it out with Ryan Preece and Matt Tifft.
“I feel like it’s one of the better campaigns we’ve had in our sport,” said Hemric. “I’m excited to go to battle week in and week out with these guys, and it’s a group I have a ton of respect for; I know their past and their journeys. We have incredible opportunities in front of us, and we all look forward to taking advantage of it.
“For me, being able to carry that title (Rookie of the Year) goes so far, considering the people who have won it in the past. I’ve fallen one spot short in each class. In the grand scheme of things, I’ve always had to compete against good people for the Rookie of the Year. I’m looking forward to doing it again.”
As for Reddick, it’s his first race weekend at RCR after winning the Xfinity Series title at JR Motorsports, and when he joined the team, running the Daytona 500 wasn’t part of the plan but thanks to Childress’ desire of wanting him to race, a third car was entered alongside Hemric and defending 500 winner Austin Dillon’s gold cars.
“I wouldn’t say this was part of the plan to run the 500 when I went to RCR,” said Reddick. “When we figured out that it was something that made sense and that we can do, and Richard wanted to happen. As soon as Richard wants something to happen, everybody finds a way to make it happen. He’s the leader and everyone gets behind what he wants, and he wanted me to run the 500, so we made it happen.”
Since it’s an extra entry, Reddick was one of six drivers who doesn’t have the benefit of a charter and had a shot of being one of the two fastest drivers during last Sunday’s qualifying session, which he was the fastest of the non-chartered cars in 16th. Knowing that he’s in, the biggest challenge will now be maintaining his car in one piece.
“It feels really good to know that we’re in the race,” said Reddick. “I want to stay in this primary car that we brought to the race track and put all this time and effort to. We can’t afford to get wrecked. We can’t be in any sort of incident where we have to fix our car. We want to keep it exactly the way it is.”
Reddick added that his case of surviving the attrition that’s defined the race for many years is rather odd as its mostly being in bad situations that led to greater outcomes.
“You can do everything right and still get wrecked. I’ve done about everything wrong and still somehow won the race,” said Reddick. “Look at last year, our car was destroyed. The battery was dead. I had the battery switch to the wrong side, and it wasn’t charging. It couldn’t accelerate under its own power. With all that said, we want to keep all the cards we can in our deck for the end of the race, but you can almost take a completely destroyed race car and win this race, if you get the right help.”
Hemric said that there’s so many elements that’s out of a driver’s control and it comes down to how’s in the right place to make the winning move at the end, which he’s been working on over the past few years regardless of the series he’s running.
“I get a laugh of that because there’s so many variables that is out of your control,” said Hemric. “Maybe earlier in my career, I looked at it as ‘man it’s a crapshoot.’ It’s hard to put yourself in position to have success. As you really diagnose the situation, it’s the best guys at this style of racing always find their way their way to the front at some point.
“Then you have certain things, timing wise, that you get caught up in situations. They have a methodical way of being patient and making the right moves at the right time to put themselves in position. That’s something I’ve been trying to do in the past, especially in the last year or two, is trying to really study those guys.
I got to put a ton of effort in my speedway racing mentally and myself because it’s something we do so few of times. When you begin to do it, you want to be good at it. Looking at that side of it, it’s going to be a lot of new changing things for me as we get in the draft. On the flip side of it, it’s going to be a new experience that I’m looking forward to.”
During qualifying, Reddick felt that as soon as his temporary Cup teammate Austin Dillon put on a great qualifying run, which saw him top the speed charts earlier on, his confidence levels on making the show was paramount.
“All of our guys put in a lot of work on this car. Richard told everybody that he wants this car to be just as good as his other two cars. I’d say based off qualifying, we’re all pretty close. Daniel really pulled something out of the hat on the last run. When I saw Austin earlier on that qualifying session go right on top of the board, I’m like ‘Yep, we’re qualifying in. We’re going to be fine.’”
Meanwhile, Hemric was “best of the rest,” setting a solid qualifying run that put him fifth fastest, behind the Hendrick Motorsports quartet. It took him by surprise because he didn’t knew what he’s expecting and like Reddick, gained more confidence about his car running fast.
“We didn’t get to do a full qualifying run on practice day, so I didn’t know what to expect,” said Hemric. “I asked Luke (Lambert, crew chief) what we were going to run and he said he didn’t have a good idea either. I saw my teammate Austin Dillon go top of the board early, and he went a good bit faster than what we expected our cars to run.
“It gave me some confidence that we could lock ourselves into the second round and have a shot. And then we went on to qualify fifth. We were incredibly proud because there’s so much effort that goes into building this race cars in the offseason between ECR, Chevrolet and RCR. This is our biggest event and you want to come down here and have speed. I know it’s early in the week by the time you qualify but it does give you momentum rolling into this week.”
In a race that’s filled with emotions, Hemric stated that it won’t hit him that he’s making his 500 debut until race day when everyone’s standing next to their cars and honor America during the National Anthem.
“There’s something about that feel when you have tons of people around you but you see your group that’s stood behind you the entire time – between family and friends and car owners and a lot of other people,” said Hemric. “You get to share that moment together and it’s because of those folks that I get to be here today. The good thing is that we get to strap in the race cars quickly after that so we can get down to business.”
For the defending Xfinity Series champion, a win in the Daytona 500 would make him the first ever driver to win in all three national series at the 2.5-mile superspeedway as he’s won the 250-mile Truck race for BKR in 2015 and the closest finish in NASCAR history in last year’s 300-mile Xfinity race, beating Elliott Sadler by 0.0004 seconds.
“I really want to say that I’ve won in all three series at Daytona International Speedway,” said Reddick. “That’s something coming into this I’ve never thought it was even going to be possible. I just happened to win in a Truck and Xfinity race. Obviously, the Cup Series is the hardest one, but it would be really cool to win in all three series. Hopefully, for not too long and win on Sunday. I realize how hard that can be and something I’d be chasing my whole life, but I’d like to get that done.”
Regardless of the outcome, the 2019 edition of the Daytona 500 will go down forever as their debuts in the “Great American Race,” and so far have shown promising speed to be wild card contenders Sunday.