DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Story by Race Chaser Online Mid-Atlantic Correspondent Marshall Gabell — Jeff Zelevansky/Wood Brothers Racing photos —
Rookie Ryan Blaney and second-year young gun Matt DiBenedetto will both have a chance at winning the Harley J. Earl Trophy during next weekend’s 58th annual Daytona 500, after the duo posted fast enough times during Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coors Light Pole Qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway to lock themselves into the starting lineup.
With the advent of NASCAR’s new Charter system, 36 Sprint Cup teams were guaranteed spots in every race on the 36-event schedule in 2016, including the Daytona 500. The field was then reduced to a maximum of 40 cars — leaving four positions for ‘Open’ class (or non-Chartered) race teams to fill via either Sunday’s time trials or Thursday’s upcoming Can-Am Duels at Daytona.
Two of those positions will go to the highest finishing ‘Open’ car in each Duel, while the final two are reserved for the fastest-two cars from qualifying that failed to race their way into the field via the 150-mile qualifiers. By virtue of being the fastest two qualifiers on Sunday, Blaney and DiBenedetto can now breathe easy — regardless of what happens four nights from now, they will race next Sunday in the Sprint Cup season opener.
Blaney was one of the drivers who made it to the final round of knockout qualifying, clocking a lap of 194.746 mph (46.214 seconds) in his No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford Fusion for the legendary Wood Brothers that put him seventh-fastest overall and within reach of the pole award that was won by fellow rookie Chase Elliott.
The Wood Brothers are looking for their second Daytona 500 win in the last six years, and their sixth overall this season.
“It is nice to be locked into the race,” said Blaney. “The biggest relief for us is to know [we] are locked in and are good to be able to race in the 500. That kind of lets us go race on Thursday a little bit … at least more than we would have, instead of playing it conservative if we hadn’t been locked in.”
“It is a load off our shoulders for sure [going into the rest of Speedweeks]. I think anytime you can make it to the last round (of qualifying) you feel good about the speed of your race car. I think our speed is pretty good. We definitely aren’t the fastest, but we have good speed and I think we will dial it in and be good for the 500.”
DiBenedetto, driving BK Racing’s No. 93 Dustless Blasting Toyota Camry, recorded a speed of 196.314 mph (45.845 seconds), securing himself a spot in his first Daytona 500.
“Man, I can sleep well this week finally,” the 24-year-old laughed. “I’ve done a lot of things in my career, (but) I was more nervous for this than probably my first Sprint Cup race last year.”
“I was really nervous all night, between me and Michael McDowell really is where it seemed like it was going to fall. We were really close in our practice speeds. We kept kind of bouncing back as to who was quicker. This is just a testament to my team, though. They stayed here until 9:30 last night. The latest they could stay here, we’ve been here and I’m really thankful to those guys for that. … This was a team effort; I’m glad to get them in the Daytona 500. This is [ultimately] more about them [than it is] me.”
Josh Wise, Robert Richardson Jr., Cole Whitt, David Gilliland and Michael McDowell — the five other drivers in the ‘Open’ class that were forced to qualify into the event — are on the flip side of the coin, having to wait until Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels to work themselves into the final two spots available in the starting field.
Thursday’s Can-Am Duels are scheduled for 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Eastern time — both races are 150 miles (60 laps) and air live on FOX Sports 1.
About the Writer
Marshall Gabell is the Mid-Atlantic Correspondent for Race Chaser Online, and was also formerly the public relations director for NASCAR Next member Austin Hill. Gabell is currently attending Stephen Decatur High School in Ocean City, Md., completing his sophomore year. He is just 15 years old.
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