Noah Gragson, Jacques Villeneuve jubilant after clinching Daytona 500 starting spots

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Two drivers for non-chartered teams can breathe with a measure of relief after locking in their Daytona 500 berths with Wednesday’s Busch Light Pole Qualifying. And what a contrast for those two.

Give one starting spot to Noah Gragson, the plucky 23-year-old Xfinity Series regular who pushed the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet into the field with the fastest lap – 33rd overall – among the open teams. The other guaranteed berth went to Team Hezeberg’s Jacques Villeneuve, the 50-year-old Canadian who has a Formula 1 title and Indianapolis 500 win in his trophy case.

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Both will race in Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) for the first time. The other four non-chartered drivers – Kaz Grala, Greg Biffle, JJ Yeley and Timmy Hill – will await their fate after Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying races (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM).

Gragson’s effort will mark his Cup Series debut. His bid to make The Great American Race with the Beard Motorsports group last year ended in heartbreak after a crash in the second Duel.

“It’s really emotional to be able to make the race after last year coming so close and went through adversity during qualifying last year and not being able to take time,” said Gragson, who has more part-time Cup Series duty on his 2022 schedule with Kaulig Racing. “Before the Duel last year, Ms. Beard said to just go out there and drive the piss out of it. So she told me that tonight before qualifying, too. Last year, not being able to make the race, it’s almost that much sweeter and you appreciate it that much more. ”

This year, Gragson celebrated with the family-run team, sharing hugs with owner Linda Beard on pit road after his lap. Beard and her children have continued the team’s legacy after the death of founder Mark Beard Sr. just two weeks before last year’s 500.

“Well, just being right here is a thrill,” Linda Beard said. “Because being a small team, and having this happen to us, which has happened before, we’ve made this race before, but not being here last year and having the tragedy of losing my husband makes this just so much more emotional for all of us and so much bittersweet for all of us. So it’s a thrill, and we are extremely grateful.”

2022 Feb16 Jacques Villeneuve Main Image
Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Digital Media

Villeneuve is scheduled for just his fifth Cup Series start and his first since 2013. He failed to qualify in his only other Daytona 500 bid, also driving a No. 27 entry for team owner Bill Davis in 2008. He’ll give Team Hezeberg, a part-time team with European roots, its first Cup Series appearance on the sport’s grandest stage.

Villeneuve was also all smiles after time trials, saying Thursday’s feat stood out on the list of his career accomplishments.

“Obviously, it’s not a win. It’s not like winning the Indy 500 or the F1 championship. But at this point in my career, the last time I tried to qualify here was 14 years ago, just to make the show is incredible,” Villeneuve said. “Because we’re a small team, we didn’t link up with a big team to to get the car ready, and it’s highly unexpected to be able to make it on time. So it ranks right after these big wins.”

The rest of the 40-car field will be sorted after Thursday’s 60-lap, 150-mile Duel races. Grala and Biffle were the fastest among the four drivers not already clinched, and both could rely on qualifying speeds to make the main event.