Conor Daly’s Daytona 500 Adventure perking up

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Every year, it seems, the Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona races create a captivating — sometimes surprisingly so — storyline and Thursday’s editions of the Daytona 500 qualifying races certainly did.

IndyCar standout Conor Daly will make his Daytona 500 debut thanks to a solid, if not spectacular, outing in the Duel 150. He finished 17th, one lap down in the No. 50 The Money Team Chevrolet.

But that finish combined with the poor luck outing by one of the other “open” candidates — a DNF for NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Austin Hill — has resulted in Daly’s first Daytona 500 start making him the only driver this season to compete in both the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 in the same year.

“I’m sure none of you expected to see me here but we changed everything but the color of the car in the race,” Daly said smiling.

“It was pretty wild to start. I thought it was broken immediately but we just kind of kept going, got through that part and thankfully got the yellow (flag). . … honestly, we took advantage of luck. It was very lucky, but I will take luck all the time because we got better and better as we raced, and I learned a lot at a high rate of speed and it’s pretty awesome to have a chance at it on Sunday.”

“If you had asked me 18 months if I’d be here,” Daly added. “I would have thought you were living on the moon.”

Daly, 31, whose 40 laps led was most in the 2021 Indianapolis 500, certainly overcame setbacks this week. His car had mechanical problems right away and was unable to even turn a qualifying lap. When he climbed in for his first competitive laps — ever — at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday evening, the car was driving slightly erratically. But Daly said his veteran crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and team worked and worked. … and worked on the car during the qualifying race. And the end result is a bid in the Daytona 500.

“As soon as they made the vast amount of changes they made in that first pit stop, the car was instantly better, so I was like, ‘keep doing this,'” Daly said, adding of his challenges, “I don’t know if this whole experience can be compared to a lot of the other ones because of the no-practice and going right into qualifying.

“I’ve watched for many years anytime when anyone from open-wheel came over because it’s fascinating for me, because that’s my world they are coming from and trying something new. So, I understand from a small piece how difficult it is and I will continue to understand how difficult it is. I have an incredible amount of respect for the drivers in this series.

“Everyone is really good. I think all across the board whether its IndyCar, NASCAR, F1, everyone is good at what they do and it’s pretty cool to be able to compete against a lot of them.”

Manufacturer representatives at Daytona

As is tradition during the season-opening Daytona 500 week at Daytona International Speedway, executives from the three NASCAR powerplants — Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota — took time to address the upcoming season of competition with the sport’s reporters.

Last year, much of that talk focused on the new Next Gen car. But Friday, now with a year of competition under its belt — including a record-tying 19 different winners in the NASCAR Cup Series — the discussion was markedly more wide open than just the car.

Toyota’s David Wilson, Ford’s Mark Rushbook and Chevrolet’s Jim Campbell answered questions for more than a half hour on topics ranging from the supply chain (better than last year) to the movement of drivers and teams (Tyler Reddick from Chevrolet to Toyota and Kyle Busch from Toyota to Chevrolet).

“There are days that we’ll miss Kyle (Busch), and other days that we won’t,” Wilson joked of Kyle Busch, who won two NASCAR Cup Series championships with Toyota before moving to Richard Childress Racing’s Chevrolet team this season.

Another big topic of conversation was the migration toward hybrid technology in motorsports — something all three leaders said they are in favor of and noted was already happening in big ways.

“I think 2022 was obviously a revolutionary season with the new car and a lot of changes coming, so we see 2023 very much as evolutionary,” said Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Motorsport. “It’s good to see some of the changes in the cars that are being made and all the teams continue, and manufacturers continue to learn these cars, so it’s going to be interesting as we saw strengths and weaknesses across the three OEM’s last year throughout different parts of the season. I’m sure that’s going to continue as we go through 2023 as well, so definitely an evolution of the Next Gen car.”

Each of the men spoke about specific interests for their companies. And for Chevrolet, that included a question about winning the Daytona 500 — something it hasn’t done since Austin Dillon’s last-lap victory in 2018.

“We have won this race 24 times. .. and with that said, Chevy drivers won 3 of the 4 speedway races (in 2022),” reminded Campbell, the U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “Both Talladega races and then Austin (Dillon) won the transfer race at Daytona. So, we won 3 of the 4 there and we won both of the Atlanta races, however you want to categorize the Atlanta track.

“We have shown that we can do it, but we have got to do it here. You are exactly right, so we are definitely hungry for that. This is the weekend to go from 24 (wins) to 25 if we can get organized and get it done.”

Kyle Busch’s return to Xfinity Series racing is a by-product of job hunting

In his quest to find a new NASCAR Cup Series team for 2023, Kyle Busch made some new friends along the way.

Though he opted for Richard Childress Racing in NASCAR’s premier division, Busch discovered he was simpatico with one of his other suitors — Kaulig Racing — and that led to a five-race deal in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Busch bowed out of Xfinity racing after the 2021 season when he won all five of his starts and increased his victory total in the series to a record 102 — a number that may prove as unassailable Richard Petty’s 200 Cup wins.

But circumstances have changed with Busch’s move from a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to an RCR Chevrolet, and that includes the willingness to help Kaulig establish benchmarks for its Xfinity program.

Busch will share the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet with a roster that includes fellow Cup drivers AJ Allmendinger, Dillon and Justin Haley. Busch will debut in the Kaulig car in his native Las Vegas and also will race at Phoenix, Charlotte, Watkins Glen and Darlington.

Though Busch had to disappoint team owner Matt Kaulig and president Chris Rice on the Cup side, he wanted to build on the warm relationship that developed during the job-seeking process.

“When it came down to decision time and I had to let everybody know who wasn’t the choice for going Cup racing with, I told them that I would still love to drive for them and have a chance to go race his cars,” Busch said. “It just wouldn’t be on Sunday.

“They were gracious enough to let me run in their Xfinity program, and I would love to go over there and help those guys out. I feel like they are really, really, really close and right on the brink of a force to be reckoned with in the Xfinity Series, and I would love to help carry that torch to the next level.”

Garage 56 Car Unveil

The Garage 56 project — a combination effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear to enter a car in this June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans — brought many of the sport’s senior executives together to finally unveil the specially-constructed Chevrolet in Daytona’s famed Victory Lane.

The car — in a bright blue, silver and gold livery — is expected to get official Le Mans entry from the l’Automobile Club de l’Quest (ACO) in a few weeks. It’s combination of efforts notably includes the winningest team, manufacturer and tire in the sport’s 75-year history.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, sports car star and former Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former Formula One champion Jenson Button are tabbed to drive the car. The Hendrick Motorsports organization — with leadership from four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon (now an executive with the company), championship crew chief Chad Knaus and former Hendrick crew chief Greg Ives are overseeing the technical development of the car, whose next test date is a 24-hour run on Monday-Tuesday at the famed Sebring International Raceway, located a couple hours south of Daytona Beach.

Rockenfeller — and the team’s fourth driver, IMSA champion Jordan Taylor — joined an esteemed list of guests for the “unveil” on Friday including NASCAR CEO Jim France, NASCAR President Steve Phelps, longtime NASCAR executive Mike Helton, IMSA President John Doonan, and several key Hendrick personnel from owner Rick Hendrick to Knaus and Gordon.

“I consider it some of the best racing there is and taking it over and showcasing it in European events to their fans, my dad did it a long time ago and it was a heckuva an idea then and I think still a good idea,” said France.

“The best positive reception for me was when I went to Rick Hendrick and asked him if he wanted to be involved in this project and he said, ‘definitely,’ so that to me, validated the whole concept.”

France said he went to Hendrick because that was the winningest team in NASCAR history and wanted that kind of success to help represent NASCAR.

And he couldn’t be happier with the look of the car.

“It’s a beautiful work of art and the fans will love it,” France said of the car. “Watching it run through the chicane and with the lights on at night, absolutely awesome. It’s spectacular.”

FOX Sports Unveils Driver-Analyst

FOX Sports revealed the first five-race driver analyst lineup for its NASCAR Xfinity Series race broadcasts on the network.

Dillon, the 2018 Daytona 500 winner, will team up with Ryan Blaney on Sunday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series opener. Blaney will serve in the booth again the following week at Fontana, Calif. with his Team Penske teammate, reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano.

Kevin Harvick, the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion who will be working in the FOX booth fulltime next year after retiring from the sport, will team with Blaney at the March 4 Las Vegas Xfinity Series race. Harvick and Logano will work the March 11 race at Phoenix. Logano will join Daniel Suarez in the booth the following week, March 18 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Coleman Pressley will work as the spotter analyst at Daytona today and then again at Phoenix and Atlanta.

Darrell Gwynn Wheelchair Donation

Retired drag racing star and soon-to-be-member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame, Darrell Gwynn held his annual Darrell Gwynn Chapter of The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis fishing tournament on Lake Lloyd inside Daytona International Speedway’s famed infield Friday morning.

NASCAR Cup Series driver Erik Jones, who will drive the No. 43 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet in the Daytona 500, was the winning fisherman among a good dozen NASCAR drivers — from Ryan Newman to Noah Gragson to Brad Keselowski and Michael McDowell — who got up extra early to participate in this important annual event held by Gwynn who is in a wheelchair after suffering paralysis following a 1990 crash driving his Top Fuel dragster overseas.

But the absolute true winner of the morning was unquestionably 22-year-old Grady Chandler, a former USAC driver who suffered severe vertebrae injuries and a broken neck while competing in a sprint car race in 2019. Gwynn’s organization donated a new wheelchair to Chandler, who after years of hospital stay and recovery is attending races again.

“We always donate a chair during the fishing tournament but it’s usually to somebody who dove into a pool or had a strange accident but today, it’s a little different, we gave back to our own community,” Gwynn said. “And that feels really good.

“Grady was hurt several years ago and has been recovering ever since. He came down to the Miami Project (to Cure Paralysis) for his recovery and is now doing very well and is piecing his race team back together and he’s going to go racing again (as crew chief) with his dirt team. We donated a really cool chair that can even get around in the mud, because if you’re at dirt races and being a crew chief you need to be able to get around.

“I think today felt a little more special,” Gwynn continued. “It’s good to be able to give back to the racing community and of course, Grady meaning so much to all of us.”

This is the 375th power wheelchair given by Gwynn’s charitable organization, which has now topped $7 million in donations.

–By Holly Cain and Reid Spencer, Special to Field Level Media

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