DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Timmy Hill needed to race into the Daytona 500 to keep his underfunded team off life support. Reed Sorenson might have spent his weekend working as a spotter instead of a driver had he had not qualified for the race.
Both drivers are in the 40-car field, the latest little teams to try and give the heavyweights at Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing a run for the biggest share of the record $23.6 million purse in Sunday’s “Great American Race.”
Hill will make his Daytona 500 debut driving for MBM Motorsports, a team that failed to qualify for the race last season. The team desperately needs the cash infusion that comes at Daytona to stay afloat the rest of the season.
“We weren’t going to fold, no,” said Hill, winless in 92 career starts. “It’s tough climbing out of this hole.”
NASCAR had 36 drivers guaranteed to make the Daytona 500 field as part of the agreement with the charter system. That left four open slots for the scrappy teams that usually pin their hopes of surviving through the season on their performance in Speedweeks.
Justin Haley, who won last summer’s Daytona race, and Brendan Gaughan earned spots in the field as the fastest non-charter drivers on qualifying day.
Sorenson, who finished fifth in the 2008 Daytona 500, beat out Chad Finchum and caught a break when former Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez wrecked in the 150-mile race to claim a spot. Hill got some breathing room in the second race after J.J. Yeley crashed.
“I had a lot of weight on my shoulders for this race,” Hill said. “I felt like I was prepared for the pressure. It wasn’t going to be a problem. I knew we had to make this race.”
Making the race is a nice first step toward a top 10 finish — at Daytona, anything is possible — but the four qualifiers are way off the pace of the front row of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and William Byron. Hill starts 32nd, Justin Haley 33rd, Gaughan is 39th and Sorenson is last.
“A lot of times smaller team guys can work together in the 500, too,” Sorenson said. “I’ll be paying attention just to know we’ll have some options and people to work with on Sunday. Any time you try to make this race, it’s very nerve racking, not only for the driver, for the team owners. I don’t think my crew chief has slept in a week.”
The 34-year-old Sorenson, who drives for Premium Motorsports, caught a break early in his career when he signed a developmental deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. He showed promise when he won a pair of second-tier NASCAR races in 2005. But not much else happened over that span and he’s winless in 329 career Cup starts. The journeyman driver had an average finish of 32.7 last year in 25 races for multiple teams.
“You never know when you’re going to not get another chance to run the Daytona 500,” Sorenson said. “I didn’t know for sure if I was going to be driving or spotting. I don’t know if a lot of people know, but a lot of times when I’m not driving, I’m spotting. So I wanted to drive, of course. I enjoy spotting, but not as much as driving.”