Zane Smith, best of the rest eyeing Daytona 500 entry ahead of Bluegreen Duels

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana clinched two of the four non-chartered “open” spots in Daytona 500 qualifying Wednesday night, locking their respective ways into the 65th running of the “Great American Race” as the two fastest open entries.

While their elation was palpable, so too was the stress of the four drivers still vying for the other two available positions.

Zane Smith, Austin Hill, Chandler Smith and Conor Daly will have to race their way into the Daytona 500 via the Bluegreen Vacation Duel qualifying races on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

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Each duel will feature 21 of the 42 drivers aiming to make the Daytona 500, with three open cars in each 60-lap qualifying race.

Zane Smith, the defending NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, posted the 29th-fastest lap overall but fell four positions short of besting Pastrana for a guaranteed position.

The tension ran rampant for his No. 36 Front Row Motorsports team, which made it to the qualifying grid not long before he was scheduled to hit the track after facing holdups in pre-qualifying inspection.

“It was hectic there getting through tech and hustling to get in our Ford Mustang,” Smith told “Fortunately, I was at least able to get a lap and somewhat prepare for the (Duel races) tomorrow. Unfortunately, I think just missed those couple of spots, but we’ll fight hard [Thursday] and hopefully transfer in with our Wellcare Ford Mustang.”

Set to roll off from 15th place in Thursday night’s first Duel, Smith was pleased just to turn a lap without issue in qualifying. The same couldn’t be said for two other competitors Wednesday night.

Conor Daly and his No. 50 The Money Team Racing Chevrolet were sidelined by a mechanical issue before the car could even hit pit road.

“Basically, the oil heater, I guess, shorted out and made the oil line explode,” Daly explained. “I guess that never happens. It’s just really random, bad-luck type stuff. I don’t think we had a spare because, obviously, we don’t have a spare car. And then everyone else on the Chevy teams, they need them.

“We just couldn’t find one in time to get it on the car.”

The failure occurred “a couple hours” before qualifying began, with enough time that the team believed they could fix the issue without major delay. But without the proper part in sight, there was no quick fix available.

Daly, a full-time driver in the IndyCar Series, drove the No. 50 Chevrolet at the Charlotte Roval in October 2022 but has never turned a lap around the 2.5-mile superspeedway in a stock car. Team owner Willy Auchmoody confirmed via text to the oil line was repaired before leaving the garage Wednesday night, meaning Daly should be set for his first circuits in a NASCAR Next Gen vehicle — pace laps before taking the green flag.

“Any lap is important, right?” said Daly, who’s set to start 21st in the second Duel. “So it’s just so hard to know what these cars do in general because it’s different. But yeah, it’s gonna be hard. It was already gonna be hard; now, it’s gonna be harder.

“But you know what, we’re still here. We’re not gonna give up, and we’ll give it a shot.”

Also running into a proverbial speed bump was Chandler Smith, who is attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut this weekend in the No. 13 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing.

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Smith, a full-time rookie in the Xfinity Series this season, was the first car due out for qualifying on Wednesday night. The car fired off the grid, but only barely before coming to a stall. The 20-year-old Georgian got the engine re-fired, but not before stalling again at the entrance of Turn 1.

The vehicle was pushed back to pit lane, where the team feverishly worked to eliminate any issues. Still, the car struggled to stay on for half a lap before Smith finally was able to turn a lap of substance. He placed 41st overall and will start 21st in the night’s opening Duel.

“It’s something electrical,” Kaulig team president Chris Rice told “When it takes off, it wants to cut off, and he ran about half speed right there. We’ve been at Daytona with cars before and missed the race. We’ve got another chance [Thursday] night to race into it, and we’ll figure it out.

“We’ve got a bunch of good guys. … Just sad because Kaulig Racing, all the guys and girls build a bunch of fast race cars. So a gremlin’s inside of it somewhere, but the Quick Tie car, it’ll put on a show [Thursday] night, I promise.”

Austin Hill, the defending winner of the Xfinity season opener at Daytona, is also attempting to make his first Daytona 500 in the No. 62 Chevrolet for Beard Motorsports. The 28-year-old made his Cup debut last year at Michigan International Speedway.

Hill was 32nd overall in Wednesday night’s qualifying session and will start 16th in the second Duel.

The highest-finishing open cars in each Duel will advance to the Daytona 500.

Finishing positions in their respective races will determine the starting lineup for Sunday’s “Great American Race” (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).