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

One of the reasons the Daytona 500 differs from most other NASCAR races is that it qualifies most of the field through two 150-mile qualifying races. Only the front row of the grid is decided in the traditional single-car qualifying.

Sometimes it leads to exciting races, dangerous overtaking maneuvers and breathtaking spins. At other times, it can be a race in single file, culminating in a spirited but unsuccessful attempt to take the lead at the final corner. On Thursday you had one each.

The first race was a bit of a yawn as Joey Logano held off Christopher Bell and won by a mere 0.018s. But it was the second race that provided the drama for the night as Kyle Busch led on lap 40 of 60 with Daniel Suarez inches from his bumper. Customs became non-existent and sent Busch into the wall and out of the race.

There were six cars involved in the incident, but none was more affected than Austin Hill, who was close to qualifying for his first 500. Hill was one of six drivers who did not automatically qualify for the race but had to race into what are known as “open” or “unchartered.”

Four grid positions were available and Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana had already earned a place on Wednesday with the two fastest qualifying times. This 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 bush crash along with Suarez, Pastrana, Riley Herbst and Justin Haley. Suarez and Haley were able to return but the others were out.

Aric Almirola won the race by 0.0122 seconds over Austin Cindric, last year’s 500 winner.

The beneficiary was Conor Daly, a full-time Indy Car driver hoping to compete in just his second NASCAR race and first Daytona 500.

“When we pulled out of there, the car bounced around,” Daly said. “I had no idea what was going on. I thought the drive train was bad, and [crew chief] tony [Eury, Jr.] made it better every time [we stopped]. We got lucky with the yellows to try and get some experience but it’s pretty crazy.”

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

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 feelings are definitely weird about how big this event is,” Smith said. “You don’t realize it’s coming until you try. It was crazy, all the media and just all the hype behind it.”

It is the first time that the reigning champions of the Cup (Logano), Xfinity (Ty Gibbs) and Truck (Smith) series have all competed at the Daytona 500.

Johnson, the seven-time Cup winner, finished 14th and will start from 29th on Sunday.

“I wish we finished a little bit better, but we’ve got a lot of great replays for the … team,” Johnson said. “I’ve got new over-the-wall guys, a new spotter, a new crew chief, a new team – to have that behind us is really good and I think it’s been a really successful day.”

When the Daytona schedule came out, many drivers grumbled that their first chance to race other cars would be in Thursday’s qualifiers. The event is called SpeedWeeks but the claim is based on a formality as the 500 takes place on Sunday, the start of the new week. It’s more like SpeedDays. Five to be exact.

“We don’t have much time left on the racetrack,” said Logano. “We haven’t practiced [Wednesday], so we didn’t make a round. So on the first round you’re firing and jabbing and punching and you’re like, hopefully she drives well when you get there.

“I want to go back and … develop a game plan for training [Friday] and how we can tune our car a little bit better. It’s not bad. Obviously it’s fast. handles pretty well. … Just a few little things you can fine-tune, which is a lovely place, isn’t it?”

Ford won both races on Thursday. The manufacturer has won nine of the last 12 duels and has seven of the top 11 places in the starting XI. But Chevrolet has the two front row seats. It will take 500 miles on Sunday to determine which is the better spot. Or maybe it’s the one who’s the luckiest. Daytona sets its field for the 500 with two very different qualifiers

Emma Bowman

Emma Bowman is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Emma Bowman joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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