By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Two wildly different paths, same result.
After a combined 300 miles of racing in the two Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night, the 40-car field for the 65th running of the Daytona 500 is now complete, with defending Truck Series champion Zane Smith and Conor Daly punching their ticket for Sunday.
Racing in the first Duel race, Smith was able to breathe a sigh of relief early on after finishing eighth in his race, ahead of seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in 14th and Chandler Smith a lap down in 18th.
Following the strong Ford contingent into the top-10 early on, Zane was able to hold serve for the remainder of the race while Johnson faded back into the pack and Chandler Smith found himself trying to play catch-up following a pit road speeding penalty.
“It’s such a weird feeling… this event is just so big,” Zane said. “I wanted to walk out Sunday afternoon knowing I was going to start in the Daytona 500, and we accomplished that.
“That’s a huge shoutout to everyone. We all work together so well. Without my Ford teammates, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’m just so proud of everyone, and I’m excited for Sunday. The car has been great. We saw how fast all of us are together, and the big thing is on these superspeedways, how well we work together. That’s what I was mostly impressed by.
“I’m excited for what I can help out with on Sunday. I definitely want to help out my FRM teammates like Michael [McDowell] helped me out today. We’ll grind hard on Sunday.”
With Zane joining the field on Sunday, all three defending national series champions will take the green flag, as Xfinity Series champion Ty Gibbs makes his Daytona 500 debut and Cup champion Joey Logano starts third after winning the first Duel race.
While the first Duel was pretty much cut and dry, the second Duel was anything but.
From the get go, it seemed like the final transfer spot into the Daytona 500 was Austin Hill’s to lose after Conor Daly was battling a ill-handling car that he compared more to riding on a Supercross track than the Daytona high banks.
With Daly a lap down and severely off the pace, it was just a matter of finishing all the laps for Hill to be able to clench the final spot in Sunday’s race.
Then came a tangle at the front of the field between leader Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez on lap 41 that turned things upside down.
Among the cars involved in the ensuing crash were two of the three open cars including Hill and Travis Pastrana, who was already locked into the race via his qualifying speed on Wednesday night.
Both Hill and Pastrana would retire from the race shortly afterwards, vaulting Daly from also ran into the Great American Race.
After crossing the line to officially cement his place in Sunday’s starting grid, Daly made his way back to pit road, climbed from his No. 50 Chevrolet and took some time to look back at the start/finish line, soaking in the fact that he will be racing in the Daytona 500.
From the mechanical problems on Wednesday night to the handling issues to start Thursday’s race and the stunning turn of fortune that played out down the stretch, Daly explained afterwards that he would gladly take a lucky break if it meant being able to race on stock car’s biggest stage.
“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.
“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. It’s pretty amazing.”
With his ticket into the Daytona 500 now secure, Daly will join a short list of drivers that have been able to race in both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 and an even shorter one of drivers that will do it in the same year.
“It’s something that is really, really special,” Daly said. “As a race fan first, I love this race and I love the Indy 500. Of course, that’s the one true gem in my heart and mind. But I mean the Daytona 500 is the Daytona 500.
“I always think in my lifetime that I wanted to do the Le Mans 24-hour race, the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. And so now I’m gonna have two of those crossed off the list. I’ve just got to find a ride for Le Mans at some point.
“Honestly the only reason I’m here is because of Bitnile.com and Todd Ault’s support and all of our partners that have pushed me forward. My career was essentially over at the end of 2021. We met Todd and Travis (Pastrana) was there, which is hilarious, right? And here we are a couple years later and we’ve kind of been vaulted into a whole different stratosphere. So, it’s incredible.
“If you’d asked me 18 months ago, would I have been here, I would’ve thought you were living on the moon. So, it’s pretty cool.”