Reigning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith clinched one of two final Daytona 500 starting spots after Thursday night’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway. Smith, racing in the unchartered No. 36 Wellcare Ford Mustang for Front Row Motorsports, will be making his second Cup Series start, but his first in Sunday’s prestigious Daytona 500 season opener. Smith used a steady eighth-place finish in the first of two Daytona Duel races to outdistance Chandler Smith, no relation, to advance. And he wound up a bit starstruck by a certain returning seven-time champion, who he spent time racing with in the pack.

“I don’t know what life is. I had Jimmie Johnson parked behind me. I watched him all my life growing up and still is my idol,” Zane Smith said on pit road after the first 150-mile qualifier. “Just unbelievable being in the ‘Great American Race.’”

Ford drivers snared seven of the top eight spots, led by opening-race winner Joey Logano. Smith followed Front Row Motorsports teammate Michael McDowell – a former 500 winner — through into the lead pack, then stayed clear of the last-lap dicing up front that closed the caution-free race.

“Yeah, my emotions are definitely weird, just how big this event is,” Smith said. “You don’t realize it just coming until you’re making an attempt at it. It’s been crazy, all the media, and just all the hype behind it. Those Duels were a little nerve-racking, but I kind of just followed my teammate through there, and he was a huge, huge help. Big shout-out to him, all the Fords really. I felt like we really all worked together well.”

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