Kaz Grala, Greg Biffle snap up Daytona 500 berths in Duel qualifiers

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Rarely does a last-lap pass for 18th place have such major implications. Thursday night, it was the difference in making the Daytona 500 field and going home.

Kaz Grala eked his way into the Great American Race, bypassing JJ Yeley by that single spot in Thursday’s first Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying race. Greg Biffle took the final berth in the 500 field in the second Duel, denying Timmy Hill, Yeley’s MBM Motorsports teammate.

RELATED: Duel 1 results | Duel 2 results

The results mean that The Money Team Racing will make its NASCAR Cup Series debut with Grala in Sunday’s 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Biffle will make the first Daytona start for team owner John Cohen under the NY Racing Team banner.

Grala struggled to find drafting help throughout the 150-mile qualifier, then overcame a pit-road speeding penalty with 24 laps remaining. After the checkered flag, he expressed his relief over the team radio as his thanked his No. 50 Chevrolet crew.

“It went from puke to puke, puking nervous to puking excited at the end,” Grala said. “I was worried as we rode by (Yeley) on that last lap, I didn’t know if he was going to try something, try to block, shoot down in front of us. There wasn’t a hole for him, but I was worried about whatever he might try because you’ve got to try. That’s all we did.”

RELATED: Kaz Grala reacts to making Daytona 500 

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Yeley was aiming for his seventh Daytona 500 start, and his first since 2015. He indicated that he become disconnected from the drafting help of Kaulig Racing’s Daniel Hemric late in the race, when Hemric moved his No. 16 Chevrolet to the high lane to allow the lead pack to pass by.

“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Yeley said behind the MBM No. 55 hauler. “I’ll probably go watch this Duel. I can’t get too crazy because we have Xfinity practice tomorrow. I’ve been doing this long enough that you have to take it with a grain of salt, but it definitely stings knowing that we were so close and then not making it.”

MBM team owner Carl Long took some exception to Hemric’s tactics, lamenting after the first race that breaking up their draft allowed Grala to make the pivotal late-race gains.

“You have sponsorship, you have stuff you put together and come out here for it, and because another team decided to drag the brake on us and slow us up up there,” Long said. “Everybody’s got their own people that they work with, but it just messed us up.”

MORE: Daytona weekend schedule | At-track photos

Hemric, the defending Xfinity Series champ who is running a partial Cup Series slate this year, said that his move wasn’t intended to thwart Yeley’s hopes or help another Chevrolet team make the field.

“No. No, no, no. I literally asked coming down pit road, I said, ‘who got in?’ ” Hemric said. “I didn’t think about it till I saw the 50 up on the screen there. So yeah, I just wanted to make sure that I got Kaulig Racing, everyone on this team in the Daytona 500 with this particular race car, and that’s what we did.”

Long also predicted in between Duels that Hill’s goals would be an uphill task, saying “that car hadn’t shown the speed that we needed.” Duel 2 proved him right early on, as Hill’s No. 66 Ford was off the pace and out of the draft just five laps in. Hill went a lap down by Lap 14, then another lap down near the race’s halfway mark.

The lack of speed cleared the way for Biffle to clinch a Daytona 500 starting spot despite an eventful Duel. A lengthy pit stop slowed the No. 44 Chevrolet on Lap 33, and he reported to his team that he was out of fuel as he approached the white flag. Biffle’s car sputtered, but he kept it running to a 13th-place finish, one lap in arrears.

“It feels really good. I’ll tell you, I have not slept much in the last couple days just trying to keep a cool composure,” said Biffle, who will be the oldest driver in the field at age 52, making his first Cup Series start since 2016. “I’ve been nervous about this race because there’s so many things that can happen and so many ways it can go.”

RELATED: Greg Biffle ecstatic to make Daytona 500