Both drivers of Noah Gragson and Jacques Villeneuve locked themselves into the 2022 Daytona 500 on Wednesday by being the fastest two open cars in qualifying. Gragson, 33rd fastest, will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the 500 this Sunday with Beard Motorsports while Villeneuve, 36th fastest, will make his fifth career cup start.
Villeneuve has an extensive background in racing all over the world holding an F1 title and an Indianapolis 500 win in 1995. The driver has also made starts in NASCAR’s Pinty’s, Truck, XFINITY, and Euro tours in addition. Villeneuve spoke in the media center after qualifying on where making the Daytona 500 ranked in his career:
“Super high. Obviously, it’s not a win. It’s not like winning the Indy 500 or the F1 championship, but at this point in my career the last time I tried to qualify here was 14 years ago, just to make the show is incredible because it’s a small team. We didn’t link up with a big team to get the car ready and it’s highly unexpected to be able to make it on time, so it ranks right after these big wins.”
It also wasn’t the first time that Villeneuve attempted the Daytona 500.
In 2008, Villeneuve joined Bill Davis Racing for the season opener at Daytona to pilot the No. 27 Toyota. Unfortunately for the driver from Canada, he did not make the race after being involved in a crash with three other cars in turn three in the second Duel 150. Since then, there have been a lot of changes around NASCAR and how they race—especially with introducing the NextGen this season.
“Fourteen years ago the old track was bumpy, crazily bumpy. When you were following cars you could see them get 20 degrees sideways just because of the bumps and the tires bending. You didn’t understand how the cars were staying on the track. It was tough and it was the older car,” said Villeneuve. “Now we have a lot more downforce. The track is a lot smoother, so it’s moved a little bit towards more what Talladega is, I guess. It’s different to set the car up as well because of the aero platform with the diffuser and the flat bottom, which brings it closer to GT cars or even what I was used to in Formula 1 with the aero platform anyway. I think that’s caught a few guys out.”
While locked into the show Sunday, Villeneuve will start 18th in the second Duel 150 on Thursday.
Noah Gragson joins Beard Motorsports piloting the No. 62 Beard Oil / South Point Hotel and Casino Chevrolet on Sunday. Gragson, who failed to make the 500 last season with Beard Motorsports, will make his cup series debut this Sunday with the team.
The young driver has 102 XFINITY and 47 Truck Series starts since 2016.
“It’s really emotional to be able to make the race after last year coming so close. Went through adversity during qualifying last year and not able to take time,” said Gragson in the media center after time trials. “Last year, not being able to make the race, it makes it that much sweeter and you appreciate it that much more.”
Gragson, along with owner Linda Beard, will carry a legacy on Sunday after team founder and Linda’s husband Mark Beard Sr. passed last year two weeks before the 500.
“It’s such a bigger stage when comes Sunday for the 500,” said Gragson. “I’m just grateful, thankful, and it’s a privilege to drive this car and race for the Beard family. It’s such a big moment.”
Gragson starts 17th in the first scheduled Duel.
Like Gragson a year ago, four open drivers will have to race for two remaining spots in Thursday’s Duel 150 races. Pole winner Kyle Larson and second-place starter Alex Bowman have already locked up the front row in single-car qualifying on Wednesday. The two Duel races will set the rest of the field, from third through 40th.
Kaz Grala and JJ Yeley are the two open cars in the first Duel not locked in while Greg Biffle and Timmy Hill are the two open entries in Duel No. 2 not locked in. The highest finisher in their respective Duel race will advance into the 500 while the other will not make the race.
The first of two 150 races will air live on FS1 and MRN radio at 7:00 p.m. ET. The second Duel event will start at approximately 8:45 p.m. ET. also on FS1 and MRN Radio.