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Haley, Gaughan exhale after securing Daytona 500 starting spots

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Justin Haley played another waiting game at Daytona International Speedway, though the stakes — and the weather — were far different this time. Brendan Gaughan had his own fretful moments, handled with his trademark loquacious manner.

At the end of Sunday’s Daytona 500 time trials, the youngest and oldest drivers on the entry list could breathe easier, locking in starting berths for next Sunday’s “Great American Race” (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) on the basis of qualifying speed.

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Haley’s Kaulig Racing No. 16 Chevrolet was the fastest of the seven open, non-chartered teams vying for four remaining starting spots, posting the 31st-fastest lap (190.018 mph). Trailing just behind was Gaughan’s No. 62 Beard Motorsports entry, which was 33rd-fastest at 188.945 mph.

Those speeds assured Haley and Gaughan their spots in the prestigious season opener. But five drivers have work to do in Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying races; two of those drivers will transfer into the main event, and three will fail to qualify.

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Haley, a 20-year-old Xfinity Series regular, is double-dipping into the Cup Series again this week. Both he and his team are relative newbies — Sunday’s 500 will mark just his fourth premier-series start and team owner Matt Kaulig’s Cup debut — but Haley returns to Daytona as the historic track’s most recent winner.

Last July, Haley waited out an agonizing rain delay here, physically shaken in a bundle of nerves before his surprising triumph in an abbreviated Coke Zero Sugar 400. Sunday’s wait came under sun-splashed skies, but his anxious state of mind made the transition from summertime to winter.

“I didn’t think I was going to be that nervous, right?” Haley said. “Because it’s Daytona, the driver doesn’t really do much, but you do have to nail your shifts, you have to get off pit road good, you have to just do everything right. There was a little bit of nerves, even though I’ve got a few Cup starts, it’s still the Daytona 500. It’s something I’ve always dreamed about.”

When asked which wait was more heart-wrenching, Haley laughed.

“I would say probably the rain situation, but who knows,” he said. “We definitely have a car fast enough to win this race under green-flag conditions this time. So I’m really looking forward to actually racing at a superspeedway in the Cup Series.”

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Haley’s career is just starting, but the 44-year-old Gaughan has confirmed that the Daytona 500 is the starting point of his four-race farewell tour in 2020. As he’s done the previous three seasons, the veteran is pairing with team owner Mark Beard’s family operation for the four superspeedway events — two races each at Daytona and sister track Talladega.

Sunday’s show of speed meant an easier week for Gaughan, who was able to keep his plans to scuba dive this week with a worry-free conscience.

“My old heart, man,” Gaughan said. “I’m the oldest guy in the field. That heart … I can’t take those things anymore. I want an easy day.”

Gaughan will have fewer restless days in the interim, but the remaining five drivers will need speed, strategy and good fortune on their side in Thursday’s 150-mile qualifiers. Reed Sorenson, Daniel Suarez and Chad Finchum will compete for the lone starting berth available in Duel 1, and Timmy Hill and JJ Yeley will decide the final berth in Duel 2.

“We have to race. We have to race hard,” said Suarez, prepping for his first start in the Gaunt Brothers Racing No. 96 Toyota. “We knew that we would have a lot of challenges and that we didn’t also have the raw speed, but I know what I can do. I just have to go out there … Thursday and get it done.”