By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The final two spots for Sunday’s 62nd Daytona 500 spot have been set as Reed Sorenson and Timmy Hill got themselves into the race after Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona International Speedway while crashes eliminated Daniel Suarez and J.J. Yeley from making the 40-car grid.
In Race No. 1, Suarez’s misfortune became Sorenson’s gain as the 16-year NASCAR Cup Series veteran locks his way into Sunday’s Daytona 500 via qualifying speed after Justin Haley (who was already in as the fastest open car driver in last Sunday’s qualifying session) was the top open car finisher.
What looked like to be Suarez’s spot to lose due to running extraordinarily well in the draft. That all changed on Lap 30 when he and Ryan Blaney got together in Turn 4, sending Suarez’s year-old No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota into the wall and wound up with an agonizing 22nd. It marked Suarez’s first DNQ in his Cup career.
Meanwhile, Sorenson’s spotter Joe Campbell’s voice pitch rose as the incident happen, knowing that his driver was in an excellent position to make his first Daytona 500 since 2015. This led Sorenson to purposely ride at the back and hang onto his position which he did.
“I didn’t have much emotion about it because I’m still trying to concentrate on what I we might or might not have to do the get in,” Sorenson after Suarez crashed out. “He was starting screaming at me but nobody was around me, so I didn’t knew what he was screaming about but it’s because the No. 96 was out.
“It wrecked hard enough to take him out, so that put us in position to stay ahead of the No. 49 car (Chad Finchum, who also failed to qualify) and as long as the No. 16 (Haley) was in front of us then we can get in on speed. We knew from that point on we stay away from the pack because there’s no reason for me to be near them and have a chance to tear the car up. Once that happened, I was kind of taking it easy so we didn’t screw anything up.”
Going forward, Sorenson making the 500 certainly brings tremendous financial benefits for a team that normally doesn’t get much coverage due in most part of being noncompetitive at other circuits.
Sorenson also confirmed that his blue unsponsored and ECR engine powered No. 27 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet will go the distance as making this field brought a huge sigh of relief considering how small the team is.
“We’re definitely racing. We do have the green light,” Sorenson said. “That’s why we put the effort into having a fast race car so we can make the race for one and once we made the race, we can be aggressive. So we’ll see how the race plays out and I think you still got the be smart. Not get to anxious at the beginning of the race. Keep your nose clean and race hard at the end.”
In Race No. 2, it was an all out war between Hill and Yeley. They swapped spots back and forth as neither were giving up a fight to assure themselves to be the top man among the open cars. Hill’s bid of making it seemed to be borderline once Yeley’s No. 54 Rick Ware Racing Ford pulled away as well as Brendan Gaughan, who like Haley, was already in the field due to their qualifying speed.
Then on Lap 41, disaster struck on the backstretch as Yeley and Corey LaJoie tangled, resulting LaJoie turning the 2003 USAC Triple Crown champion into the wall. This brought out the only caution of the second race.
Yeley’s right front was terminally damaged and his night was cut short, becoming the third and final driver not making Sunday’s race.
Due to this, Hill’s No. 66 RoofClaim.com Ford that’s powered by a Roush Yates engine, was already locked in before the race wrapped up.
“I’m really proud what the car our team prepared for the race,” Hill said. “They brought me a beautiful race car and invested a lot of money to rent a Roush Yates motor. It had great power all night long but we felt like we had a car that can hang onto the lead pack.
“For us, people don’t really give us much of a shot so to come into this race as an underdog with nobody really counting on us. It feels really great to prove a lot of people wrong. The team jumped off the wall and I can hear their voices on the radio. To make this race is really special for us.”
Hill is entering his 10th year in NASCAR and after failing to make the 500 back in 2017 due to an engine, he did felt a shot of trying to get into the race wasn’t going to happen again.
“The thought crossed my mind that I may never have a shot at this,” Hill said. “Coming to the Daytona 500 takes a lot of preparation and much more money to prepare a car to come here. Let alone make the race.
“With the new Cup car coming next year, if we didn’t put this deal together this year. As a non-charter car, I may never have a shot at this and could very well be my last chance at it. I’m very happy that it ended up making this race.”
Putting the Carl Long entry into the field puts them in an absolute ideal spot as the rumor mill suggested that MBM Motorsports would fold if they failed to make the field which Hill denied.
“We weren’t going to fold. It’s tough climbing out of this hole,” Hill said. “We spent a lot of money on this motor. Carl does have his own motor department and have a lot of dedicated people that work on those and we’re still working on getting the power plant so we can get closer to the competition.
“It makes it tough for these guys to dig real deep to risk spending many money on a motor to get me into the race and make it.”
Both drivers defied the odds as Thursday night will be remembered for those underdog teams escaping the madness that took out the teams with more financial support. Now it’s time for the 200-lap mecca that is the Daytona 500. Live race coverage of the event commences at 2:30 pm EST on Fox as Denny Hamlin looks to become a the first driver since Sterling Marlin to score consecutive 500 wins.