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Daytona sets its field for the 500 with two very different qualifiers

Conor Daly during NASCAR Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway.
Conor Daly during NASCAR Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway on Wednesday in Daytona Beach, Fla.
(Terry Renna / Associated Press)
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One of the reasons the Daytona 500 is different than most any other NASCAR race is that it qualifies most of the field through two 150-mile qualifying races. Only the front row is decided in traditional single-car qualifying.

Sometimes it leads to exciting racing, perilous passing and breath-snatching spins. Other times it can be single-file racing until a spirited but unsuccessful attempt to grab the lead on the final turn. Thursday, you had one of each.

The first race was a bit of a yawner with Joey Logano holding off Christopher Bell to win by a scant 0.018 seconds. But it was the second race that provided the drama for the night when Kyle Busch was leading on Lap 40 of 60 with Daniel Suarez inches off his bumper. The inches became non-existent sending Busch into the wall and out of the race.

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There were six cars involved in the incident but no one more affected than Austin Hill, who was on the cusp of qualifying for his first 500. Hill was one of six drivers who did not automatically qualify for the race but had to race their way in. They are known as “open” or “non-chartered.”

There were four spots available and Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana had already earned their way in by having the two fastest qualifying times on Wednesday. That meant that the top two racers not named Johnson or Pastrana would also qualify if they were the highest open finisher.

But Hill was collected in the Busch crash along with Suarez, Pastrana, Riley Herbst and Justin Haley. Suarez and Haley were able to return but the others were out.

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Aric Almirola won the race by .0122 over Austin Cindric, last year’s winner of the 500.

The beneficiary was Conor Daly, a fulltime Indy Car driver, who was hoping to run in only his second NASCAR race and first Daytona 500.

“When we went out there, the car was bouncing around,” Daly said. “I had no idea what was going on. I thought the drivetrain was broken, and [crew chief] Tony [Eury, Jr.] just made it better every time [we stopped]. We got lucky with the yellows to try to get some experience, but it is pretty crazy.”

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The other last-chance qualifier for Sunday’s race was Zane Smith of Huntington Beach, who finished eighth in the first race.

Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola lead the field to start the second of two qualifying races for the NASCAR Daytona 500.
Kyle Larson (5) and Aric Almirola, top left, lead the field to start the second of two qualifying races for the NASCAR Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday in Daytona Beach, Fla.
(Terry Renna / Associated Press)

“Yeah, my emotions are definitely weird, just how big this event is,” Smith said. “You don’t realize it just coming until you’re making an attempt at it. It’s been crazy, all the media, and just all the hype behind it.”

It’s the first time that the reigning champions of the Cup (Logano), Xfinity (Ty Gibbs) and Truck (Smith) series have all been in the Daytona 500.

Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, finished 14th and will start in 39th position on Sunday.

“I wish that we finished a little bit better, but we got a ton of great reps for the … team,” Johnson said. “I have new over-the-wall guys, a new spotter, new crew chief, a new team -- to have this behind us is really good and I think it was a really successful day.”

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When the Daytona schedule came out, a lot of drivers were grousing that their first chance to run with other cars would be in Thursday qualifiers. The event is called SpeedWeeks, but the claim comes on a technicality because the 500 is on Sunday, the start of the new week. It’s more like SpeedDays. Five to be exact.

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“We don’t have much time on the racetrack anymore,” Logano said. “We didn’t practice [Wednesday], so we’ve not made a lap. So you fire off on the first lap and you’re bumping and banging and you’re like, hope she drives OK when you get there.

“I want to go back and … come up with a game plan for practice [Friday] and how we can tune our car in a little bit better. It’s not bad. Obviously it’s fast. Handles pretty good. … Just kind of little things that you can fine tune, which is a nice place to be, right?”

Ford won both races on Thursday. The manufacturer has won nine of the last 12 duels and has seven of the top 11 spots in the starting lineup. But Chevrolet has the two spots on the front row. It will take 500 miles on Sunday to determine which is the better place to be. Or maybe it’s who has the most luck.

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