Race Weekend Central

Conor Daly Surprise Daytona 500 Qualifier: ‘We Took Advantage of Luck’

Conor Daly couldn’t even make it on the track for Daytona 500 qualifying. He nearly spun out in the first few laps of his Bluegreen Vacations Duel race. His No. 50 The Money Team Chevrolet couldn’t hang on to the lead draft and fell a lap down on speed after halfway.

None of it mattered in the long run.

A 17th-place finish, one lap off the pace, wound up good enough to advance into his first Daytona 500 after a late-race wreck wiped out his two competitors for the transfer spot.

“We took advantage of luck,” Daly admitted in his post-race press conference. “But I will take luck all the time because we got better and better as we raced.”

“Better” was a relative term early on in the Duel, because Daly’s No. 50 looked like its rear end was broken.

Daly compared it to driving over a supercross track, losing the lead draft immediately and nearly spinning out on every turn before the yellow flag came out for Justin Haley‘s side window on lap seven.

“I compare it to racing a go kart and you bend an axle,” Daly said. “That’s what it felt like. I guess the goal was just to drive through it … but that was something I had never experienced before.”

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The crew tinkered with the rear of the car on the team’s first pit stop, making several changes and improving the handling somewhat. But Daly remained loose in turns 1 and 2, losing the draft and eventually a lap as it appeared Austin Hill was set to grab the final Daytona 500 spot.

All seemed lost until Kyle Busch lost control on the backstretch. A bad bump by Daniel Suarez sent Busch spinning in front of the entire pack, sparking a Big One. Travis Pastrana, driving the third open entry, couldn’t slow down in time, smashing into Hill and clearing the way for Daly to make the 500 field.

Among the 170 text messages waiting for Daly when he got out? One from Pastrana that said, “#yourewelcome.” Ironically, it was Pastrana who helped set Daly up with his current sponsor, BitNile.com, a partnership that led to the open-wheel star scoring a limited schedule with TMT, Floyd Mayweather’s part-time Cup outfit.

And TMT survived, somehow, an unlikely 500 participant for the second straight year after Kaz Grala snuck through his Duel in 2022. Daly made a little extra history, becoming another Indianapolis 500 crossover star to make the field to join friends Pastrana and Jimmie Johnson in qualifying with open cars.

“We thought about how crazy it would have been if Jimmie, me and Travis would have made it,” Daly explained. “It was literally the dream scenario.”

Now, the dream becomes not only racing in the 500 but staying competitive in the lead draft. And while the 31-year-old is realistic about his lack of experience, just the sheer improvement he felt in 150 miles of racing has him pumped for what a full 500 miles could do for him on Sunday (Feb. 19).

“I feel 100 times better because I actually felt what it was like,” he said. “And now I’m happier.”

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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