Daytona 500 lineup set with IndyCar’s Conor Daly a surprising qualifier

AP photo by Terry Renna / Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman, front left, and William Byron, front right, lead the field to start the first of two qualifying races Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway for Sunday's Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series season opener.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — IndyCar driver Conor Daly raced Floyd Mayweather into the Daytona 500 for a second consecutive year by bobbing and weaving his way through myriad challenges for the ill-prepared team.

Daly's attempt to make his first Daytona 500 was announced just last week as part of a deal with his IndyCar sponsor — BitNile — and The Money Team Racing, a fledgling NASCAR operation owned by the retired boxer.

Daly will become the 62nd driver in history to race in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. In May, he can become the 29th driver to compete in both races in the same year.

The No. 50 Chevrolet raced its way into the Daytona 500 last year and ultimately entered four total Cup Series races, including Daly's circuit debut on the Roval course at Charlotte Motor Speedway last October. Four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves had the first talks with Mayweather's team about entering Sunday's Daytona 500 but passed because he didn't think the entry had time to be properly prepared.

Daly jumped at the opportunity, as did his sponsor, which wants him to run a handful of NASCAR races this year to market the company and motorsports as a whole. Still, his chances seemed on the ropes from the moment Daytona International Speedway opened this week in preparation for the Cup Series regular-season opener.

An electrical problem led to a hole being burned in the oil line and prevented him from making a qualifying attempt in Wednesday's time trials that determined the front row for the starting lineup. It meant the Indiana native had to race his way into the Daytona 500 in one of Thursday night's qualifying races.

Even then it seemed as if Daly couldn't go the distance: TMT was thrashing just to get his car ready to start the race, his radio wasn't working, and Daly complained in the garage that "it's not supposed to be this hard."

When he pulled off pit road, the vibration was so bad on his Chevy that he was adamant something was wrong with the car.

"I'm not going to lie, man, I don't know how this can be right," he said on the team radio. "But I'll go for it."

In the end, it was Daniel Suarez spinning Kyle Busch from the lead that got Daly into the race. Busch's crash collected Austin Hill, the other driver Daly was racing for a spot in the field, and with Hill out of the qualifying race, Daly was in despite essentially racing a jalopy.

"Not how we wanted that, but (Hill) are like family, but holy mackerel, we made our second Daytona 500!!!!" TMT co-owner Willy Auchmoody wrote on Twitter before the qualifying race ended.

Daly was stunned.

"We were inherently unlucky for the last 36 hours, but we got lucky," the driver said. "I wish I could say I drove it in there on pure pace. It was just crazy. When we went out there, the car was bouncing around. I had no idea what was going on."

Daly was so certain he wasn't going to make the field for Sunday's 65th running of "The Great American Race," he had already booked a Friday flight to Los Angeles.

"This race, I've watched it for so many years and so much crazy stuff can happen," Daly said. "Thankfully we were on the right side of the crazy."

Zane Smith raced his way into the Daytona 500 in the first qualifier, and seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson — who spent the past two years competing in IndyCar — and action sports star Travis Pastrana both qualified on speed. Chandler Smith and Hill were the two drivers unable to secure one of the four open spots in the 40-car field Sunday.

Zane Smith, the reigning NASCAR Truck Series champion, will make his Daytona 500 debut. Smith warmed up for the effort with a win last month at Daytona International Speedway in a sports car race and will race in Friday night's opener on the third-tier national circuit. His Truck Series team will also be his Cup Series crew.

"Crazy, I don't even know what's going on," Smith said after earning his spot. "I don't even know what life is right now. I had Jimmie Johnson parked behind me. I watched him all my life growing up, and he still is my idol. Just unbelievable being in 'The Great American Race.'"

By making the field, Smith ensured it will be the first Daytona 500 that includes the reigning champions from all three of NASCAR's national series: Cup, Xfinity and Truck. Ty Gibbs, the 2022 season champ on the second-tier circuit, is a Cup Series rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Meanwhile, Team Penske's Joey Logano — the reigning Cup Series champ — and Stewart-Haas Racing's Aric Almirola won the 150-mile qualifying races in a sweep for Ford.

The wins give Logano and Almirola starting spots in the second row of Sunday's race. The front row was set in Wednesday night's time trials, with Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson sweeping the two spots to put a pair of Chevrolets up front.