Conor Daly, Zane Smith clinch final berths for Daytona 500 field in Duels

Conor Daly smiles as he celebrates with his TMT Racing crew on pit road at Daytona International Speedway
Tyler Strong
NASCAR Studios

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Money Team Racing made another improbable run into the Daytona 500, landing a last-ditch drive that had IndyCar regular Conor Daly welling up with tears after the checkered flag of Thursday night’s second qualifying race. “Shock the world!” was the rallying cry from the joyous TMT crew as the No. 50 Chevrolet came to rest on pit road.

Daly joined reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith in clinching the final Daytona 500 starting spots after Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying races. Both drivers will be making their second Cup Series starts and their first in Sunday’s prestigious season opener (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM).

Both were also aided by misfortune for each of their primary competitors for Daytona 500 berths. Chandler Smith never recovered from a mid-race pit road speeding penalty in Duel 1, and Austin Hill was caught up in the wake of a multicar stack-up in the second 150-miler. Both failed to qualify.

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For Daly, the result was the culmination of a more-than-eventful couple of days in Daytona, with the No. 50 crew failing to post a qualifying lap in Wednesday’s time trials because of a faulty oil line. It was a push to get to the grid, and Daly battled a major vibration and other handling concerns even in the pace laps. He dropped a lap behind by the second Duel’s halfway point.

The tide shifted when Hill’s Beard Oil Motorsports No. 62 Chevrolet became entangled in the evening’s biggest wreck. With Hill sidelined, Daly trudged on and finished 17th — one lap down in the final car running.

“As I was accelerating, it was like literally driving a bucking bronco,” Daly said, recounting the warm-up laps before the green flag. “I didn’t know what was going on. It was shaking so much that it’s like you feel like a wheel’s falling off. But as I told Tony (Eury, crew chief), I said, ‘Well, I just, I have to go.’ And so I didn’t lift those first two laps. But as it was moving around, I was like, this is really not confidence-inspiring. And so I lost the draft but when he made that first adjustment, I could definitely tell where what was happening and thankfully, we were able to fix that and I guess we got a lot better as we went, but it was crazy.

“And we took advantage of a lucky situation. We can’t ever deny a lucky situation because I’ll take it any day.”

Hill’s hopes for his first 500 had risen with Daly’s early woes, but his good fortune ran out two-thirds of the way through Duel 2. When Kyle Busch crashed at the front of the pack, he was unable to escape the tie-up farther back with Travis Pastrana and Riley Herbst. Hill was able to limp away from the crash scene, but the crew’s efforts to repair the No. 62 Camaro were fruitless. After the damaged vehicle policy clock expired, Hill finished 18th, completing just 41 of the 60 laps.

“We didn’t need to be in the draft,” Hill said after a check at the infield care center. “The main reason we were in the draft was because it was single-file and I was just trying to get experience, see how the car drove and what the car was doing when I would get a run on a guy, that type of thing, just trying to learn for the 500. And then right down the backstretch, when I saw the wreck happen, there was a lot of dirt going across the track. So I kind of lost sight of where the other cars were that were wrecking. I kind of got to the dirt as the dirt was coming across and it just made me lose traction.

“Not sure if the 15 (Herbst) tagged me or not, I have no idea. But, we just, we started spinning and the right-front, I think it was the lower [control arm] was broke. So it ended our night. There was really no reason for us to even be up there in the pack. The 50 wasn’t in the draft. He was multiple laps down and, just, just dumb on my part. I mean there’s no way around it. I mean it was just stupid to even be up there, just trying to learn and see what we can do going into the 500 and now we’re not even in it. We could have just run by ourselves and not around anyone to stay in front of the 50 and we would be locked in. So it stings, but I have a race Saturday in the Xfinity Series and I’ll do all I can to win that race.”

Zane Smith smiles on pit road after finishing eighth in Duel No. 1 at Daytona
Tyler Strong | NASCAR Studios

The first race was the calmer of the two, and Zane Smith used a steady eighth-place finish to outdistance Chandler Smith, no relation, to advance. And he wound up a bit starstruck by a certain returning seven-time champion, who he spent time racing with in the pack at Daytona International Speedway.

“I don’t know what life is. I had Jimmie Johnson parked behind me. I watched him all my life growing up and still is my idol,” Zane Smith said on pit road after the first 150-mile qualifier. “Just unbelievable being in the ‘Great American Race.'”

Ford drivers snared seven of the top eight spots, led by opening-race winner Joey Logano. Smith followed Front Row Motorsports teammate Michael McDowell – a former 500 winner — through into the lead pack, then stayed clear of the last-lap dicing up front that closed the caution-free race.

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“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. Those Duels were a little nerve-racking, but I kind of just followed my teammate through there, and he was a huge, huge help. Big shout-out to him, all the Fords really. I felt like we really all worked together well.”

Chandler Smith was hampered by a pit-road speeding penalty on the 22nd of 60 laps, getting tagged with the costly violation as he left the pit lane. The 20-year-old Kaulig Racing driver placed 18th in the 21-car field — one lap off the pace — and failed to qualify for what would have been his Cup Series debut.

“Just got greedy, man,” Chandler Smith said. “At the very end of pit road, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re in a really good spot, this is really promising,’ and squeezed a little too much right before the yellow line. So it’s just, it’s on me. But I believe everything happens for a reason. I just can’t thank (team owner) Matt Kaulig and (team president) Chris Rice enough and Quick Tie Products, everybody that was on this deal that put a full effort in to allow me to come down here.”

Johnson and Pastrana clinched their starting spots on the basis of their speed in Wednesday’s qualifying session, besting the other non-chartered teams during those time trials.