Unlike most other major sports leagues, NASCAR’s biggest event is its opener, the Daytona 500, and it presents a unique opportunity for small teams and outsiders to earn a spot to race alongside the Cup Series regulars.
Through sheer determination and a bit of fortuitous luck, that is what happened for open-wheel IndyCar racer Conor Daly, as he secured a spot in Sunday’s big race by way of his finishing position in Thursday’s twin Duel races that set the field, according to The Athletic.
The unlikely achievement came after Daly was unable to run a single practice lap or even make a qualifying attempt at top speed due to a problem with the car, as well as a poor initial setup that required adjustments to be made during the race to make the car handle better and go faster.
With no qualifying speed to fall back on, Daly needed to race his way in by finishing better than two other drivers competing for the final few slots in Sunday’s field, Austin Hill and Travis Pastrana, and against all odds, that is what Daly did.
Final spot secured
According to The Daytona Beach News-Journal, Daly raced in the second Duel along with Hill and Pastrana, and as noted by The Athletic, the IndyCar driver initially struggled and even fell back one lap behind the leaders for a portion of the 150-lap race.
However, a big wreck at the front of the pack involving regular Cup Series drivers Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez took out several other cars, including the one driven by Hill.
The damage to Hill’s car was too much for him to continue, thus he was eliminated from contention and Daly earned the final open spot in the 40-car field for Sunday’s race. Pastrana was also taken out in that wreck, but due to his prior top qualifying speed that he could fall back on, he will also be included in Sunday’s main event.
Conor Daly and his mom celebrate him making the Daytona 500. pic.twitter.com/EQd9BSCG9x
— Jordan Bianchi (@Jordan_Bianchi) February 17, 2023
Racing a limited NASCAR schedule for 2023
Per the Jayski racing site, Daly will drive the No. 50 Chevrolet for former boxing champ Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s The Money Team Racing, with BitNile.com as a sponsor.
He is also set to race for that same team in at least three other NASCAR events in the 2023 season, including the road courses at the Circuit of The Americas and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as well as potentially three other races that have yet to be determined.
Though this is Daly’s first attempt at the Daytona 500 in a Cup Series car on the high-banked superspeedway, it is not his first time racing at the famed facility, as he previously raced go-karts on a small inner track and has twice competed in the Rolex 24 endurance race on Daytona’s road course, according to AutoBlog.
“Spent a lot of time here growing up and just excited for the chance just to take in a lot of learning at a very high rate of speed,” Daly told reporters before the Duels. “It’s going to be tough. It’s the biggest uphill battle that I’ve ever had to make a race.”
Already planning ahead for next year
Regardless of how things turn out for Daly in Sunday’s Daytona 500, he strongly implied that he would like to participate in the huge event again in the future, as he told reporters on Wednesday, “I never do anything one and done,” according to Racer.com.
“I would love to do as much as I can. But obviously, you never know when those opportunities come about. But my goal is to hopefully learn a lot in the Duel to hopefully use in the race that we get to do on Sunday, to hopefully come back next year and feel way better about it,” he added. “Who knows? I obviously can’t tell the future, but I’ll do anything, anytime, anyplace.”