The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Johnson, Pastrana land spots in Daytona 500

- By Mark Long

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Conor Daly's first call after getting offered a chance to race his way into the Daytona 500 was to a guy named AJ.

It was supposed to be Allmending­er. He accidental­ly dialed up Foyt.

Daly panicked and hung up before the fourtime Indy 500 champion and 1972 Daytona 500 winner could answer.

“It would have been an interestin­g call,” Daly said.

Probably would have been informativ­e, too, since Foyt is one of two open-wheel regulars (along with Mario Andretti) to win the two most prestigiou­s races in North America — the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500.

Nonetheles­s, Daly, an IndyCar regular, has been trying to glean knowledge from anyone and everyone (besides Foyt) about how to efficientl­y and effectivel­y get around Daytona Internatio­nal Speedway.

Daly ended up having to wait a day to get on track after an electrical issue burned a hole in an oil line, which couldn't get repaired in time for singlelap qualifying runs Wednesday night. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and action sports star Travis Pastrana

had no issues and were the fastest of the six drivers vying for the final four spots.

Johnson and Pastrana landed starting spots and joined the 36 drivers already locked into the 40car field based on NASCAR's charter system. Daly and youngsters Austin Hill, Chandler Smith and Zane Smith will vie for the final two coveted spots in twin qualifying races Thursday.

Daly considered himself a long shot to make the race on speed in his No. 50 Chevrolet for The Money Team, mostly because he has so little experience at Daytona. And he's right: FanDuel Sportsbook listed his odds at winning the race at 200-1.

Daly raced go-karts at a smaller track inside Daytona as a teenager and twice ran the road course as part of the Rolex 24. But Daly has yet to turn laps on the high-banked, highspeed superspeed­way in a Cup car.

“Spent a lot of time here growing up and just excited for the chance just to take in a lot of learning at a very high rate of speed,” Daly said. “It's going to be tough. It's the biggest uphill battle that I've ever had to make a race.”

He turned to Allmending­er, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney,

Corey LaJoie and Chase Briscoe for help. He even listened to three-time Daytona 500 champ Denny Hamlin's podcast for insight.

“Everyone said the same thing: ‘It's going to be hard, but why not try?'” Daly said.

Daly spent two hours in Chevy's NASCAR simulator last week, all of it trying to hone shift points and how to get on and off pit road. As for everything else?

“It's impossible to simulate,” he said.

Johnson actually might have similar issues even though the two-time Daytona 500 winner knows the track as well as anyone entered in the event. He hasn't raced in the latest iteration of the Cup Series car but does have two test sessions in it, including one at Daytona.

As co-owner at Legacy Motor Club, Johnson has been peppering both his drivers, Erik Jones and Noah Gragson, with questions about the car. He compared the situation to 2002, when he had to race his way into the Daytona 500 as a rookie at Hendrick Motorsport­s.

“I think on paper it's similar,” Johnson said. “There's a lot at stake here for me, I would say. But personally between (the) two years, man, I'm sitting here with seven championsh­ips

and 83 wins. Yes, it would absolutely suck to not make the race.

“But the pressure I had on myself in 2002, life would have seemed like it ended if I didn't make that race. I am in a different place, although this is the first step for me as a partowner of this car.”

Johnson actually started on the pole for that first Daytona.

“Maybe lightning will strike twice,” he added.

Pastrana might be considered the biggest wild card of the six even though he's driving for 23XI Racing. He last raced at Daytona a decade ago. But he and Daly have been talking about racing at Daytona for several years.

Like Allmending­er (or Foyt, really), Pastrana was one of the first ones Daly called when his deal came together this month.

“I finally got the green light and I'm like, ‘Dude,

I'm going to do it,'” Pastrana said. “He was like, ‘That's so cool.' And then he called me just a couple weeks ago and he's like, ‘I'm in!'

“I wanted to punch him through the phone, like, ‘Doggone it, what are you doing?' He's a good friend. … Someone asked me what would you be willing to give up to win the Daytona 500. I said, ‘All my friends that are racing on that track.'”

 ?? Chris O'Meara/Associated Press ?? Jimmie Johnson, right, and Travis Pastrana talk before qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Wednesday at Daytona Internatio­nal Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Chris O'Meara/Associated Press Jimmie Johnson, right, and Travis Pastrana talk before qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race Wednesday at Daytona Internatio­nal Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.

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