Parker Kligerman makes Daytona 500 with timely help from Kyle Busch

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Parker Kligerman was out of the Daytona 500 … until Kyle Busch was out of the draft.

It was a fortuitous turn of events for the driver turned TV analyst who “literally thought I’d never drive a Cup car again” but now will drive in the biggest race of his life.

With critical help from Busch, who had fallen a lap down and deep in the pack because of a midrace spin, Kligerman finished 12th in Thursday’s first qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway and made The Great American Race for the second time in his NASCAR career. He will start 25th alongside Kyle Larson.

“It kind of feels like it’s finally all starting to work,” said Kligerman, who took a four-year break from the Cup Series from 2014-18 while working for NBC Sports Group as an analyst and pit reporter while continuing to race part-time in the Truck Series. “Like after many years of doing this, people are starting to take notice.  I’m getting the opportunities.

“When I won the Talladega truck race two years ago, I had like 550, 560 texts.  I have 530 texts right now just from making the 500.  It is a big race, apparently. Biggest race in the world.”

Kligerman, 27, finished just ahead of Tyler Reddick and Ryan Truex, the two drivers he needed to beat to put Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota in the field for Sunday’s 61st Daytona 500.

Parker Kligerman speaks Wednesday at Daytona 500 Media Day. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kligerman’s hopes seemed dashed when Reddick moved ahead of him with 14 laps to go, but his seemingly futile pursuit suddenly took flight when Busch’s No. 18 Toyota plummeted into range with four laps remaining. After their spotters began communicating, Kligerman and Busch hooked up and rocketed past Reddick.

“From there, it was a blockfest,” Kligerman said of holding off Reddick and Truex. ”I never blocked so hard in my entire life. Swerving down the backstretch just to hold them off. And we’re in the Daytona 500.”

He can thank Busch, whose NASCAR team fielded Kligerman full time in the Xfinity Series for the 2013 season – helping propel Kligerman into Cup for a short-lived ride in ’14. Busch and Kligerman have remained on good terms since then, and though sharing a manufacturer helped (“We don’t have a lot of cars in this race, so the more Toyotas, the better.”), so did their friendship.

“I’ve had a great relationship with him for a long time, since I drove for him,” Kligerman said. “He’s always been someone that I needed some advice or just wanted to reach out for a question, I could reach out to him. He’s done the same with me a lot of times about the truck series.

“It’s a mutual respect. I’m very glad I’ve made that relationship for this exact reason right here. Because he’s the reason we got in the Daytona 500.”

The Westport, Connecticut, native can take some credit. He returned to Cup last year with four starts for Gaunt Brothers  (starting at the Coca-Cola 600) and posted two top 25s for the fledgling team, which earned him another shot for Speedweeks 2019 and starts the next two weeks at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Owner Marty Gaunt is hoping to run a dozen races this season, and Kligerman hopes to figure into more.

“I know he has grand ambitions for the future for this race team,” he said. “I hope to be in those discussions.  Right now, we’re taking it step by step, being methodical about it, being smart.  He wants to be here for a long time. I really, really hope this all works out because he’s a good guy and good owner to have in this sport and we need more like him.”

For now, though, Kligerman is happy to focus on the short-term satisfaction of being a Daytona 500 driver again.

“A year ago I watched (the Daytona 500),” he said. “I felt like I’d probably never get a chance to be in this race again. Fast forward a couple weeks ago, I’m doing pit reporting, doing the (Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona).  Now I’m sitting up here now talking to you guys as a guy that just made the Daytona 500.  It means the world to me.”

He had been disguising that since posting the 36th-fastest speed in qualifying, “putting on a cool face like I’m not worried at all.

“This is the most anxiety I’ve ever had in my entire life. The days leading up to this are literally some of the worst days of your life.  Then all of a sudden in the span of a split second when you cross that finish line, you’re in, the whole world becomes brighter and clearer, everything is better.”

It did come with one downer note: Truex, Kligerman’s good friend and social media foil, missed making his first Daytona 500 start.

“It is a little bittersweet knowing,” Kligerman said. “He’s a good friend of mine. He’s one of the most underrated drivers in the sport. I told him before the race I never wanted to be in this position, but here we are.

“We’re in the Daytona 500.”