DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ryan Preece was confident, while David Ragan was nervous entering Kroger Pole Night festivities for the 63rd Daytona 500 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
However, following the conclusion of qualifying for this year’s Great American Race, both drivers were relieved and jubilant at having clinched their starting spots in the Daytona 500 field based on speed.
Preece and Ragan were the fastest two non-chartered drivers during single-car time trials Wednesday night at the World Center of Racing, with Preece landing eighth on the charts and Ragan ending up 13th.
That was enough to beat out the six other non-chartered competitors trying to make the Daytona 500, meaning that no matter what happens during Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona, both Preece and Ragan will be part of the 40-car field that takes the green flag come Sunday afternoon.
Preece turned a lap of 47.585 seconds (189.135 mph) around the 2.5-mile superspeedway with his No. 37 Cottonelle Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE for JTG Daugherty Racing and said he “never had a doubt” about the ability of his car to post a quality lap time when it mattered.
“I knew we would have speed in our No. 37 Cottonelle Chevrolet, but I am really proud of the effort that everyone at JTG Daugherty Racing put in to get our car as fast as it is and qualify on speed into the Daytona 500,” said Preece, who will make his third career Daytona 500 start this weekend. “We ran some solid laps in practice today and I think that prepared me for tonight, in order to put down one solid lap to qualify us in to the race on Sunday. We’re also racing in the same duel as our teammate, and it’ll be good to practice drafting with him Thursday night.
“This is the best start to Speedweeks and the 2021 season that we could think of and I’m looking forward to a strong night tomorrow and a stronger race on Sunday.”
Ragan’s time during qualifying was 47.730 seconds (188.561 mph) with the No. 36 Select Blinds Ford Mustang, good enough for 13th overall among the 44 drivers on the Daytona 500 entry list.
It was also more than two tenths of a second better than the next closest driver – Austin Cindric – without a charter, something Ragan saw as a bit of a statement run for Front Row Motorsports.
“My crew chief and I joked we were a little nervous, because we failed tech a couple of times … but there were some really good teams to come down to Daytona, and a lot of times I’ve taken practice and qualifying (going) into the Duels a little bit for granted, because my thoughts have always been on Sunday afternoon and what I need to do to be in position to try to win the Daytona 500,” Ragan noted. “It was a different feeling to come to Daytona and not be locked in and know that I had a lot of pressure on me. I had a sponsor and employees that our car owner Bob Jenkins invests a lot of money and I didn’t want to let those guys down.
“I really thought it could happen either way. I knew we had a good chance to qualify in and race in,” Ragan added. “They built this car new over the offseason. Doug Yates has great horsepower, but we’re going against some pretty fast race cars, so I knew that regardless of what happened … it was going to be meant to be whatever happened. I’m grateful that the car ran well, we got through tech and I’m glad to be locked in before Thursday.”
With the stress of having to qualify in via the Duels off their shoulders, both Preece and Ragan are turning their focus to simpler matters: racing and contending in the Daytona 500.
“We’re going to race hard,” Preece said. “Both Thursday and Sunday pay points, so we have to try and take advantage of that and put ourselves into a good position heading into the (Daytona) road course next week. Every time I get on the race track is a tense moment and I put a lot of pressure on myself. … We want to perform and the goal is to do that throughout the remainder of the week here.”
“I’m certainly not taking it for granted to be here in a Cup car at Daytona, the birthplace of NASCAR and something my family has been part of for a long time,” Ragan added. “I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to come here and very excited to get to go racing on Sunday. We had one of our best runs in this race a year ago and the hope is that we can make it to the end and replicate that again.”
Notably, Preece left Daytona after qualifying and traveled to nearby New Smyrna Speedway, where he capped off his night by winning the 76-lap John Blewett III Memorial for tour-type modifieds after starting from the rear of the 37-car field.
The 63rd Daytona 500 goes green Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET, live on FOX, the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.