One of the more underrated storylines for Wednesday night’s qualifying at the Daytona International Speedway was which two of the six open drivers would qualify their ways into Sundays 64th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN).
The open qualifiers are usually some of the better stories of the weekend anyways and boy are the two who locked themselves in under the lights on Wednesday from the World Center of Racing fitting that bill.
See, the qualifying format itself doesn’t change this year as we’ll have 42 drivers going for 40 spots into Sunday’s field with 38 of them knowing they have a guaranteed spot once the two rounds of qualifying were done on Wednesday night. All 36 chartered teams have a spot into Sunday’s race while among the six open cars, the top two speeds among them also get in since if they don’t race their ways in on Thursday night, they could always fall back on their speed.
Kaz Grala (The Money Team), Noah Gragson (Beard Motorsports), Greg Biffle (NY Racing Team), Jacques Villeneuve (Team Hezeberg) and Timmy Hill as well as JJ Yeley (MBM Motorsports) entered the night vying for those final four spots into the Daytona 500.
Two of these six would make the show on speed during qualifying. That also means the other four drivers went to bed Wednesday night not knowing if they’ll be in the race Sunday or not.
In practice on Tuesday, Biffle (188.178 mph) led the way among those six in the first session with Gragson (188.088 mph), Hill (182.919 mph), Yeley (181.984 mph), Villeneuve (180.469 mph) and Grala (179.258 mph) coming in behind him respectively. They were P17, P18, P27, P34, P40 and P41 respectively.
In the second session, it was Grala going from worst to first among the open cars in being P22 overall at 182.667 mph. Gragson (181.583 mph), Biffle (179.939 mph), Hill (178.175 mph), Villeneuve (178.042 mph) and Yeley (175.733 mph) were after in being P32, P36, P40, P41 and P42 respectively.
It was Gragson and Villeneuve.
Gragson, will make his first ever Cup Series start as he was 33rd fastest among 42 cars in qualifying. Villeneuve was 36th to take the second spot.
You have a driver making his rookie start and a team making the field in their first ever race in Cup. You also have a driver who won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and 1997 F1 World Championship sharing the field with a driver that was born in 1998 as the top open qualifiers on Wednesday.
Yes, Villeneuve won the F1 title a full year before Gragson was even born.
“Just to make the show is incredible,” Villeneuve said, adding, “To be able to make such a big race at such a high level is amazing. When I’m in a race car I don’t realize I’m 50 years old, which is good. As long as it carries on like this, I can’t imagine myself stopping racing.”
This will mark Villeneuve’s fifth career NASCAR Cup Series start and first ever in stock car racing’s crown jewel. The last time he raced in the series was 2013 when he recorded a 41st-place finish in Sonoma, Calif. His best previous series finish was 21st – at Talladega, Ala. in his first career NASCAR Cup Series start.
Still, the world class racing driver who’s made 36 INDYCAR starts totaling six wins, one of which being the Indy 500 to go along with a series championship that season as well as 163 F1 Grand Prix’s with 11 wins across 11 years in now in the Daytona 500.
An Indy win. A win in places like Spain, Brazil, Argentina, England, Hungary and others is going to be challenging for a Daytona 500 crown.
Gragson’s showing in the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet was equally as dramatic. His team owner Linda Beard – along with her children – is fielding the family-owned team in honor of her late husband Mark. It is only planning on running the superspeedway races and Gragson’s work Wednesday marks the team’s fifth start in the Daytona 500.
“It’s really emotional being able to make the race after not making it last year,” Gragson said, adding, “Last year not making the race, makes this year that much more special. … I really hope to make the Beard family proud this weekend.”
Judging by the smile and emotion she showed on pit road following the qualifying session, Gragson indeed made her proud.
“People that don’t race have no idea how much this means. .. when you are team like us, we love it,” Linda Beard said. “To do this, means so much to us, not only emotionally but just the thrill of it.”
Gragson, will be racing full time in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports again this season too. His first win came in 2020 during this very race weekend. On top of that, when he’s not racing on superspeedways for Beard in Cup, he’ll moonlight in select races with Kaulig Racing as well.
Grala, just missed that second spot by only .084 seconds. Biffle, was next in being .006 seconds behind Grala. The two slowest speeds in qualifying went to the MBM cars who also missed out on the race last year too.