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.”

Ryan: What we learned about the 2020 schedule, Drivers Council and dirt racing on Daytona 500 Media Day

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The moods were pleasant. The quotes were incisive. The topics were lively.

On the hypothetical Richter scale that monitors “How is NASCAR doing entering a pivotal 2019 season?”, Daytona 500 Media Day registers barely a tremor for its tenor and ultimate significance.

It’s intriguing to absorb the musings of every driver in the Cup Series on myriad subjects, but the reverberations are inherently limited.

The overarching storylines of Speedweeks 2019 will be determined by the quality of racing over the next four days – and after a lackluster Clash, there is a desperately gaping void in the action at Daytona International Speedway and many questions about whether the swan song for the restrictor-plate package can fill it.

Yet during seven hours of nonstop interviews in the Daytona 500 Club, NASCAR Nation still seemed in a good place Wednesday.

Before the green flag falls on tonight’s qualifying races, here are five takeaways from Daytona 500 Media Day.

–Schedule speculation: Aside from Clint Bowyer’s controversial hot take on the family dynamics of Disney World, one of Wednesday’s biggest social media firestorms emerged from Denny Hamlin’s pointed comments on whether NASCAR should consider shorter races.

Hamlin is one of many drivers willing to discuss it, which says that NASCAR likely is moving down that road as it hashes out the 2020 schedule that is expected to look much different than 2019.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps shed more light on it during a SiriusXM interview Wednesday morning, suggesting the ’21 schedule will have more impact as far as new tracks, but next year will bring some significant changes (namely, that the Daytona 500 might not open the season, which is probably why the proposed elimination of the Clash is being floated more publicly).

“We’re not going to make everyone happy, but we’re looking at what (fans) want,” Phelps said. “We’ve heard from the fans, ‘Hey it would be great to have more short tracks, more road courses.’ Those types of racetracks, they believe they’re seeing the best racing. When we look at ’21 and beyond, those are things we’re taking into consideration. I try to tease this a little bit, but I think we’ll have meaningful changes even in ’20 and then more meaningful changes in ’21.”

NASCAR is limited on switching up venues in ’20 because it marks the end of the five-year sanction agreements with all tracks on the Cup circuit. “So we are going to be running the same places,” Phelps said. “The question is, are we going to have them in the same order? When we start, when we finish the season. Those are all things we’re looking at.”

–A new car: The chatter is growing about the Gen 7 car in recent weeks with manufacturers and NASCAR confident of putting the new model on track by the 2021 season.

That timeline seems ambitious to Kyle Busch, who revealed why with another nugget: The Gen 7 might have an independent rear suspension, which is common to many motorsports series but would mark a radical departure for NASCAR. “That would be a complete overhaul of anything we’ve ever done in our sport,” Busch said. “I’m not sure where all that lands.”

Neither does Brad Keselowski, who has elected to refrain from getting involved even though it seems right up his alley. “It is going to require a lot of creative thinking,” the Team Penske driver said. “When it comes to those things, I can pie-in-the-sky dream about it all I want, but at the end of the day I don’t have the knobs. There is one group holding the controls and it is all up to them at the end of the day which way they want to twist and turn them. I made a concerted effort going forward that I am not going to put that much thought into that stuff and let them figure it out.”

–Is the Drivers Council dead? So if the outspoken Keselowski is pulling back on being opinionated, does that mean stars are willing to acquiesce to the whims of the new Jim France-Phelps regime?

Speedweeks usually marked the annual formation of the Drivers Council since its inception in 2015, but there was no confirmation Wednesday. Instead, there was uncertainty about the panel’s future that had begun last month.

Will the Drivers Council remain, or is it still even necessary?

Opinions were mostly ambivalent, but there seems a sentiment that it has outlived its usefulness. “We had the Drivers Council and we all wanted one thing and they did another,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I think that’s probably where some of the frustration comes from. For me, it was the things we wanted to do never happened, and it was more out of frustration than anything.”

Much of this undoubtedly stems from a greater comfort with the leadership of Jim France, who has been a garage fixture since becoming CEO last August. After France met with series champions last fall, Kurt Busch said he was inspired to start a ticket giveaway to veterans this year.

“Jim has done a tremendous job of at least being around,” Kyle Busch said. “He’s always carrying a pen. He’s always carrying a notebook. He’s always taking notes. He’s always listening to people, talking to people. He’s down in the trenches.

“He’s figuring it all out and trying to make some moves for the betterment of the sport, and that’s what we all want. We want somebody involved. That’s into this as much as we’re all into this and care about all of this.”

–Things are cool with Kyle: He finished second in the 2017 Daytona 500, but Kyle Larson’s most memorable connection to The Great American Race might be when he said he’d rather win the Chili Bowl.

That viewpoint naturally didn’t sit well with some NASCAR officials (as well as some veteran drivers), who relayed their concerns through Chip Ganassi Racing PR rep Davis Shaefer (“They make Davis the bad guy,” Larson said with a chuckle.”).

But the message being sent now is that Larson’s moonlighting on dirt tracks a couple dozen times annually is approved – and actually encouraged. Phelps made the point again during the SiriusXM interview when asked about how young drivers help promote racing, noting that “there’s not a vehicle (Larson) doesn’t want to climb in and compete, and people love that about him.”

“I’m just glad (NASCAR officials) feel the same way, finally,” Larson said. “I don’t really feel like I felt that from them for a long time, so it’s nice that they support all the extra racing that I do now.

“Do I do it to help grow the sport or all that? I don’t really think about when I’m off at a dirt track or any of that, I’m not thinking about just trying to help motorsports, grow motorsports. I love motorsports. So that’s why I do it. But it is neat that I feel like I do make an impact just a little bit. And it’s not just me. There’s a lot of other guys – Christopher Bell, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, (Ricky) Stenhouse – they have their own teams. I feel like we all do a good job of cross promoting between sprint cars or dirt track racing in NASCAR.”

Just as with the news of their dissatisfaction, NASCAR officials didn’t directly convey the change in their stance. “I’ve never talked to them really about it,” he said. “I’ve just seen articles and heard stuff of what they’ve said. It’s neat that they support it now. Because I didn’t feel like I got the support before. I feel like I was always in trouble for anytime I talked about sprint car racing.”

It was hard to miss the message sent when Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell led a delegation of high-ranking competition officials to the 2019 Chili Bowl last month (there was no formal meeting with Larson there, either).

“That was really cool,” Larson said. “Because the Chili Bowl has gotten a lot of exposure the last handful of years, so for them to go there and just experience the event and maybe see why it’s growing and maybe there are some things that they can take from an event like that into NASCAR is cool. They’re just looking at all areas to try to make our sport back to what it used to be — NASCAR, anyway. I’m happy they are getting into it again.”

–Lingering Daytona bitterness: It’s no secret there are several big-name drivers who have yet to win the Daytona 500 (and always have been), starting with best-in-class plate driver Brad Keselowski.

And unsurprisingly, those champions remain irked by their near-misses.

For Keselowski, Daytona “is frustrating as hell … especially when you get wrecked out, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Twice last season at Daytona, the 2012 series champion was caught in wrecks near the front of the pack because of what he felt were “bad, juvenile moves” by others.

“It seems like there are a number of people that get into the top two or three that really just have no clue what they are doing,” he said. “That has been unfortunate, but it is what has been happening lately. … Just people that throw blocks that don’t understand the runs or what is around them. They don’t have full situational or spacial awareness, but they think they do, which is even more dangerous. You can block if you know what you are doing but not every move can be blocked. You have a handful of people that have cars good enough to run up front and think that they can block every move and you can’t.”

For Truex, it’s the 2016 Daytona 500 that he lost to Denny Hamlin by 0.10 seconds in the race’s closest finish ever. “To know we were that close — as close as anyone has ever been without winning it — it’s crazy,” Truex said with a laugh. “That makes me angry.”

Could he have done anything differently to win? Truex says yes. “I would have just ran into Denny and pushed him up the track. Do what everybody does to me!”

For Kyle Busch, there is disappointment but less agony because there are “only been two opportunities that I feel like slipped away: ’08. And ’16. I was fast in ’07. We should have finished third behind Harvick and Martin, but I crashed and destroyed the field coming to the checkered.

“Yeah, I could have won two of them. Not all that many when you look at it. We just keep trying, keep fighting. It definitely sets the motivation to try to get one.”

Kyle Busch opens season atop NBC Sports Power Rankings

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NBC Sports kicks off a new weekly feature today with Power Rankings. The NASCAR Talk staff has come together to give its take on who’s hot, warm and even lukewarm.

Power Rankings will appear each Wednesday morning. Also on Wednesdays, the NASCAR America analysts will dissect the rankings and give their own takes.

Any driver in the Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series is eligible for these rankings.

Kyle Busch is at the top of the first edition of Power Rankings, just in time for Sunday’s Daytona 500:

1. Kyle Busch: Comes into the season with the most Cup wins in the last four years

2. Jimmie Johnson: Speedweeks 2019 couldn’t have started any better.

3. Brad Keselowski (tie): He was dicing with Menard for a while in the Clash and remains an odds-on favorite for Sunday

3. Joey Logano (tie): His title defense started without a major crash, which is more than can be said for many contenders

5. Kurt Busch: Among the strongest Chevrolets and seems to be blending well into Chip Ganassi Racing

6. Kevin Harvick: Should have most Cup wins last four years, but has left several wins on the table

7. Paul Menard: The Clash didn’t end the way he wanted, but Wood Brothers Racing can now be considered a Daytona 500 favorite

8. Martin Truex Jr. (tie): New team, same results. See ya in Victory Lane several times in 2019

8. William Byron (tie): Chad Knaus got him the Daytona 500 pole. Can he now get Byron the win on Sunday?

10. Chase Elliott: Can he and Johnson lead a Hendrick juggernaut in the 500 like they did in qualifying?

Others receiving votes: Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Brett Moffitt.

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Bump & Run: Does Paul Menard owe Jimmie Johnson a payback?

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How much of a hall pass does Paul Menard have to pay back Jimmie Johnson for the Clash wreck? Can he knock him aside on the next short track without compunction, or does it only extend to cutting Johnson no breaks in the near future?

Nate Ryan: It would seem heavy-handed if Menard retaliated by intentionally wrecking Johnson, but he has earned the right to rough up the seven-time champion if the roles are reversed in the future. They probably wouldn’t be working together anyway during a restrictor-plate race but don’t expect Menard to lay over for Johnson anytime soon, particularly with the Wood Brothers Racing driver alluding to a history between them at Daytona.

Dustin Long: As Menard said after the incident, contact from Johnson wrecked him at Daytona last year. So, yes, he’s keeping score. And yes he has a hall pass to use. 

Daniel McFadin: I don’t expect any form of retribution from Menard (it’s not really in his personality), outside possibly not cutting Johnson some slack at some point. It was a non-points race and Johnson didn’t wreck him on purpose. It was a side draft gone wrong.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given how NASCAR has cracked down on things this year, including taking wins away from drivers whose cars don’t pass post-race inspection, my guess is the sanctioning body will be equally diligent when it comes to payback between drivers. I highly doubt we’ll see a Joey LoganoMatt Kenseth tit-for-tat situation between Menard and Johnson, lest Menard gets nailed and suffers another fallback. The best situation is for Menard to move on and just beat Johnson with his car and talent.

Paul Menard said of Johnson’s ill-timed bump, “Jimmie does that a lot at these tracks.” Is that a fair criticism of how the seven-time champion has raced at plate tracks?

Nate Ryan: Johnson is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, but even he probably would admit that plate races aren’t his specialty. He has crashed out of more than a quarter of his Cup races at Daytona (nine in 34 starts), and he has been accused multiple times of instigating massive wrecks since near the beginning of his career (the 2005 season was particularly uncomfortable with Johnson in the middle of multicar pileups in both May and October at Talladega Superspeedway). Claiming Johnson starts wrecks in every plate race is hyperbole, but he has been in the middle of his share of crashes (and admirably took the blame for some of them).

Dustin Long: Yes, look it up, but also understand there are others that have been in the center of incidents on plate tracks. Over time it cycles to where those that are involved in incidents are victims of others. It’s not like Johnson has gone rogue or anything like that.

Daniel McFadin: Menard is right, just based on this short tweet thread of incidents involving Johnson and Menard. His involvement in Sunday’s wreck was his eighth straight Clash marked by involvement in an incident. Johnson may have eight points and non-points Daytona wins, but he’s no master of pack racing like Earnhardt.

Jerry Bonkowski: I think Menard spoke in the heat of the moment. Yes, Johnson has been involved in some incidents at plate tracks where the finger of blame has been pointed at him, but at the same time, how many times has he also been victimized by other drivers’ errors? Also, Menard cut down on Johnson in Sunday’s wreck and Johnson was trying to hold his position. So I do not give him full blame on the wreck; Menard is also culpable.

After the Clash, Kurt Busch said: “You want the cars more stable. You want us to run side-by-side. You want us to change lanes and not have side effects, and it just shows you how trimmed out everybody has got these cars to find that speed, and when you’re looking for speed, it usually brings instability in the cars.” Should NASCAR try to make changes to put in more comfort and handling for the Daytona 500?

Nate Ryan: Yes, if it were at all possible (and it might not be) to improve the stability in the draft and aid passing, NASCAR should look at it. The 2018 Daytona 500 was terrific, but plate racing has been mostly lackluster since then (notably the past two Talladega races). While this technically will be the last “plate” race (with tapered spacers essentially serving the same purpose in the future), and perhaps the new package will fix itself, it’s still important to ensure Sunday is as high quality as possible.

Dustin Long: No. No. No. No. No. If they’re going to make changes, then just give everyone participation ribbons while you’re at it. At some point, skill has to play a role.

Daniel McFadin: If NASCAR can introduce an element between now and Sunday that allows for easier creation of a second lane, go for it. But as a non-engineer I have no idea what that would entail.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m not convinced that NASCAR has to do anything more. Rather, I think the onus is on the drivers to learn and adapt to the new rules. Just because drivers complain doesn’t necessarily mean the sanctioning body has to immediately change the rules to appease them. Drivers and teams are given rules and it’s up to them to abide by those rules.

Who are you picks to make it to the Championship 4 in Miami?

Nate Ryan: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Joey Logano.

Daniel McFadin: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick

Jerry Bonkowski: Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.

Who is one driver you are most intrigued about this season and why?

Nate Ryan: Jimmie Johnson, because he still feels he has much to prove despite a Hall of Fame career, and the start to 2019 underscores he might have a newfound swagger to go along with it.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell. He said at one point last year he was ready for Cup but remains in Xfinity this season. How does he improve in a series a year after he won seven races as a rookie?

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson. After a disappointing winless season, how does he bounce back with a new teammate in champion Kurt Busch and how will the new rules package impact the driver with one of the most distinct driving styles?

Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson. Will he be able to win an eighth NASCAR Cup championship with new crew chief Kevin Meendering? Will Chad Knaus have some behind-the-scenes input, even though he’s now crew chief for William Byron? There’s also some intrigue there, as well, wondering how Byron will do in his sophomore season in Cup and with one of the greatest crew chiefs in history calling the signals for him from the pit box.

Jimmie Johnson wins rain-shortened Clash after contact with Paul Menard

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Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash wound up being more of a crash, as a massive wreck occurred on Lap 55 of the scheduled 75-lap race at Daytona International Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson, who was one of the original cars involved in the crash, was awarded the win after heavy rain came down four laps later while the race was put under caution, and then prompted NASCAR officials to end the race 16 laps short of the scheduled 75 laps.

More than half of the 20 cars in the field were involved.

Among other cars involved were Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer.

The wreck began when race leader Paul Menard appeared to slightly move down the track and into the car of Johnson, who was running second at the time.

The two made contact, with Johnson tagging the left rear of Menard’s car, sending Menard hard to the right and toward the outside retaining wall, with numerous cars being collected in the resulting mayhem.

MORE: What drivers said after the Clash at Daytona.

“I moved down a little bit and the next thing I knew, I was getting turned in the left rear,” Menard told Fox Sports 1. “We tore up the car for no good reason. … It sucks that aggressive side drafting caused that big old crash.”

Johnson told FS1, “We could see (the rain) coming, I got below him before he blocked. I think he came down a little bit to defend and block. I moved inside of him … and he just came over. I feel sorry for Paul and other teams that lost race cars, but I’m here to win races.”

At the time of the incident, Menard had led 51 of the first 55 laps.

“It feels good to be back in victory lane,” Johnson said. “I’m extremely excited to win. It’s not a points race, but it’s a good start.”

Ironically, Johnson won with new crew chief Kevin Meendering, while Johnson’s former crew chief, Chad Knaus, led William Byron earlier in the day to win the pole position for next Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Click here for the Clash race results.

The race was delayed three times due to rain, with the third time bringing about the end of the event.

Follow @JerryBonkowski