DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Austin Cindric, Austin Hill and Zane Smith won all three Speedweeks points paying races a year ago. Each were on the entry-list for this year’s 65th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN). However, Smith and Hill had to race their ways in as open qualifiers.
On top of that, Joey Logano won last year’s NASCAR Cup Series championship. He’s back in his No. 22 Ford. He picked up Thursday night where he left off three months ago in Phoenix – victory lane.
2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Ty Gibbs moved up to replace Kyle Busch with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s part of a chartered car and automatically in. Smith, used his season opening Daytona win a year ago to help propel him to his first Truck Series title.
There was a real chance that all three series champions in 2022 would be in the 2023 Daytona 500.
“Yeah, definitely when I heard that, I didn’t want to let everyone down because I was the only one that had to get in, obviously,” Smith said on Thursday night.
He never really had to worry. While Smith was third quickest out of the six open cars in qualifying a night ago, he knew that so long as at least one of Jimmie Johnson or Travis Pastrana raced their ways in, then Smith could fall back on his speed.
However, the easier path was just to finish ahead of Johnson and Chandler Smith in the opening qualifying race under the lights at the World Center of Racing.
Smith crossed the finish line eighth in his No. 36 Ford for Front Row Motorsports and with Johnson finishing 14th and Chander Smith in 18th, the 23-year-old California native will race in Sunday’s Great American Race.
“Yeah, my emotions are definitely weird, just how big this event is,” Smith said.” You don’t realize it just coming until you’re making an attempt at it.
“It’s been crazy, all the media, and just all the hype behind it.”
Smith says while his path to the Daytona 500 was a bit easier than it could have been, it didn’t stop his nerves from ramping up leading up to the finish.
“Those Duels were a little nerve-racking, but I kind of just followed my teammate through there, and he was a huge, huge help,” he says. “Big shout-out to him, all the Fords really. I felt like we really all worked together well.
“That was really my game plan, to stick to whatever Michael does. Obviously he’s very successful on the superspeedways. Fortunately, our plan worked.”
Now the plan is to make some noise on Sunday. Smith can too. He won last year’s Truck Series race as well as the sports car race here last month as well. That plus a Truck Series win and title last November has him budding with confidence heading into NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
“Winning is contagious as losing is,” Smith notes.
“It’s been really good since Phoenix on lately. Just trying to carry this momentum. This is a huge win for us, not only me, but all of FRM. Obviously they’ve shown their success on the superspeedways, but there were some really good open cars that we had to beat, and just really proud that we beat them.”
Even more so, Smith says that he didn’t necessarily expect to be as good as he’s been so far. Out of six open drivers, the likes of Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time series champion and Travis Pastrana and Austin Hill, etc were also on it. How could this newly formed third team stack up, especially with most of the personnel being his Truck Series crew.
“Well, rolling in, I didn’t expect us to honestly be the third fast he’s of the open qualifiers,” he says. “This was my pretty much whole team is my truck group, and obviously they’re trying to prepare me a really fast F150 for Friday along with a Mustang that’s going against really big teams, including my teammates. The preparation that they had also has just been crazy.
“Our goal was to make it into the race, and then you never know what’s going to happen in the Daytona 500.
“We had a great new partner come on with us in we Wellcare and Ambetter, and I just wanted to start off this relationship right and prove them right on their choice and believing me, and we’re off to a good start.”
In one persons happiness comes another’s dejection. Chandler Smith was fighting with Zane for last year’s Truck Series championship. Now, he moves up to the Xfinity Series with Kaulig Racing. Before he embarks on this new journey, he was trying to make the Daytona 500 field too.
Unfortunately, an issue in qualifying on Wednesday night left him deep in the field. He had to race his way in. However, a pit road speeding penalty put him a lap down as he couldn’t ever get it back. That left him on the outside looking in.
“Just taking an opportunity that Chris Rice and Matt Kaulig gave me there,” Smith said. “Before I said I’m fine if I don’t make it, but it would be awesome if I make it I believe everything happens for a reason. I’m I believer.
“I’m fine with this. I had a lot of fun right there. I learned a lot, a lot, a lot, now I get what these guys talk about when you run on a Sunday you gain a lot of experience. That translates into Saturdays and Sundays.
“Even from that one Duel I learned so, so much, which was awesome and I’m taking that in. Yeah, I just can’t thank everybody enough at Kaulig Racing, all the men and women that just put a full effort into coming down here and trying to attempt the Daytona 500 in a third car, first time as an organization.
“We weren’t able to get it this year, but hopefully we can come back next year and make another attempt and get in on time.”