DAYTONA BEACH — IndyCar driver Conor Daly raced Floyd Mayweather into the Daytona 500 for a second consecutive year by bobbing and weaving his way through myriad issues for the ill-prepared team.
Daly’s attempt to make his first Daytona 500 was only announced last week as part of a deal with his IndyCar sponsor, BitNile, and The Money Team Racing, a fledgling NASCAR team owned by the retired boxer.
Daly will become the 62nd driver in history to race in the Daytona 500 and the Indy 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 races, including Daly’s Cup debut on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway last October. Four-time Indianapolis 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.
But Daly’s chances seemed on the ropes from the moment Daytona International Speedway opened.
An electrical issue burned a hole in the oil line and prevented him from making a qualifying attempt in Wednesday time trials. It meant the Indiana native had to race his way into the Daytona 500 in one of Thursday night’s qualifying races.
Even that 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 radioed. “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 tweeted before the qualifying race ended.
Daly was stunned.
“We were inherently unlucky for the last 36 hours, but we got lucky,” Daly 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 Daytona 500, he’d booked a flight to Los Angeles for Friday.
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“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 NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and action sports star Travis Pastrana both qualified on speed. Chandler Smith and Hill were the two drivers unable to claim one of the four open spots in the 40-car field Sunday.
Zane Smith, the reigning 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 Truck Series season opener. His Cup crew is his Truck Series team.
“Crazy, I don’t even know what’s going on,” Smith said after earning his spot in the 500. “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 race, Smith ensured it will be the first Daytona 500 that includes the reigning champions from the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series. Ty Gibbs, the reigning Xfinity Series champ, is a rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Joey Logano and Aric Almirola, meanwhile, 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.