DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Parker Kligerman burst into the Daytona media room, arms outstretched and unleashed a “Woo hoo!”
One day after flipping his car for the first time in his career, the 23-year-old Kligerman had reason to flip out — he was racing in the Daytona 500.
Kligerman had to sweat out his spot Thursday night after failing to earn a berth on speed in the first qualifying race, and watched the second race in his motorhome. He compared the stress on Twitter to preparing for fatherhood, then said it was more like watching election results come in on TV.
“No one has the right info,” Kligerman said. “Everyone’s saying the info they think they have, but they just don’t know.”
Finally, NASCAR could call it: Kligerman was in and so was fellow Swan Racing rookie teammate Cole Whitt.
The pair of Daytona 500 first-timers were joined by rookie Alex Bowman. Bowman and Whitt raced their way into the 43-driver field via the available transfer spots. Other surprises for Sunday’s race include drivers from underfunded teams: Landon Cassill made it in the No. 40 Chevrolet for Hillman Racing and Josh Wise has a spot driving the No. 98 Ford for Phil Parsons Racing.
Kligerman was in the same 150-mile Budweiser Duel 150 race as Whitt, but finished 18th and didn’t transfer into the Daytona 500. He had to wait for the second qualifying to see if he made the field.
It was a wild turn of events for Kligerman, who was turned upside down for the first time in his career in Wednesday’s wreck, then landed a sponsor for the Daytona 500 in Lending Tree on Thursday morning, then had to sweat out his spot in the “Great American Race.”
Kligerman’s backup car wasn’t as good as his primary, and he struggled on the final lap, when he dropped from ninth to 18th. He found out after the second race he made it into the 500.
“We had a fast car and that’s what we can focus on,” he said. “Barring the engine problem, we would have finished in the top 10 and been in the 500 easy.”
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin won the twin qualifying races, the first under the lights at Daytona International Speedway.
Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, edged Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne in the first 150-mile feature. Hamlin took the checkered flag in a wilder second one.
His victory was overshadowed by a huge wreck that included Clint Bowyer’s car getting airborne and doing a complete flip before landing on its tires. Six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson triggered the melee when he ran out of gas a few hundred feet from the finish line. It caused Jamie McMurray to run into the back of Johnson, turning Johnson sideways and both cars into the wall.
The entire pack began to spin around them, and Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer flipped upside down. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip slid through the grass and hit hard into the inside retaining wall.
“While I’m spinning through the infield, I see, oh, there’s my 15 car flipping through the air,” Waltrip said of Bowyer.
All drivers escaped uninjured. Johnson was apologetic.
The bumps and bruises weren’t limited to the race.
Cassill raced his way into the Daytona 500 just days after getting hit by a car while riding his bike. Cassill had road rash on his chin, arm and both legs, as well as a black eye and some bad bruising. He was hit Saturday — he said he was T-boned by a woman who ran a stop sign — and ended up in the hospital. His bike was destroyed.
“Face plant, blood,” Cassill said. “But I made the Daytona 500 and she doesn’t know that.”
NASCAR medical cleared Cassill to drive in pole qualifying Sunday and he was back behind the wheel in the second qualifying race Thursday night.
After the race, Harvick was informed while sitting in the Fox Sports 1 studio as an analyst for the second race that his Chevrolet, sponsored by Budweiser, had failed post-race inspection for the first Budweiser Duel.
He will not, however, have to join Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart in the back of the field.
Eric McClure, Michael McDowell, Joe Nemechek, Morgan Shepherd and Ryan Truex failed to qualify. The 72-year-old Shepherd was trying to become the oldest driver in the field. Dave Blaney withdrew after he totaled his car in practice.
Wise certainly understood the pressure those drivers faced. He responded by finishing sixth in the first race to make the Daytona 500.
“It’s a big burden lifted off, for sure. Sleep has been light this week,” Wise said.
Whitt consoled Kligerman after the first race with a pat on the back and words of encouragement. Whitt was off to celebrate.
“Kind of a hard way to do it,” Whitt said. “But being out and back in with just a lap or so to go is pretty gnarly.”