DAYTONA BEACH, Fla – After a brief stint with Swan Racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2014, Parker Kligerman thought that his driving career in NASCAR’s premiere series may be winding down. The once Team Penske developmental drivers was out of a ride and out of money. How much longer could he last? Who would sign him.
Now, he will race in the 61st annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET/FOX/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) on Sunday.
The time frame between 2014 and 2019 was full of ups and downs.
“No, watching this race last year, I literally thought I’d never drive a Cup car again, never have a chance in the Daytona 500,” Kligerman said after he raced his way into the ‘500 in Thursday night’s 150 mile qualifying race. “I’m doing TV full-time. I’m racing the Truck Series. It just didn’t seem like I was really getting anyone’s attention. I don’t feel like — for whatever reason, I just couldn’t find the right opportunity, couldn’t find a sponsor.”
Kligerman, said all that changed last May when Marty Gaunt, owner of his Gaunt Brothers Racing called him about the possibility of him racing in the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte. Kligerman, was blown away. He called his new boss at NBC and the network allowed him to get back behind the wheel again.
So, for the first time in literally four years, Kligerman was racing in Cup and in one of the most premiere races on the schedule with a new team. He got them a 27th place finish too. That led to more opportunities – three more in fact. Those led to a chance of racing in the Daytona 500.
The only problem is, Gaunt Brothers Racing doesn’t own a charter. When the 36 chartered teams take up 36 of the 40 spots into the Daytona 500, that means you have the six “open” cars going for the final four spots. GBR had to qualifying and/or race their way in.
Kligerman, wasn’t among the top two open cars in Daytona 500 qualifying last Sunday, which in turn meant that he had to race his way in Thursday night.
That had him so nervous all week that he thought he would throw up.
Then, when he saw Kyle Busch in his windshield late in the race, he knew he had a chance again. Kligerman, said that his No. 96 Toyota didn’t have the speed to catch and get by Tyler Reddick on his own. He needed some drafting help.
His good friend Ryan Truex was behind him, but Truex wouldn’t be helping seeing that in order for Truex to race his way in, he had to have Reddick finish ahead of Kligerman. But, he saw another good friend up ahead – Kyle Busch.
At that point, circumstances were falling into place for Kligerman. Reddick, had a horrible pit road sequence on his opening stop which led him to one spot ahead of Kligerman on the track in the closing laps. Busch, was spun by Jimmie Johnson on Lap 25 which forced Busch to the end of the pack and now at that point a lap down.
Busch and Kligerman both drive Toyota’s and in a day and age in restrictor plate racing where you need all the manufacturer help as you can get, Busch needed Kligerman to get by Reddick and into the Daytona 500 for additional support on Sunday.
“I have to thank Kyle Busch, us linking that TRD Toyota power together,” said Kligerman of the support at the right time. “Without him, there’s no way I get by (Tyler) Reddick. (Ryan) Truex was doing the right things in terms of lagging back. He knows if the 31 (Reddick) is in front of me, he’s in the 500. That was impressive.”
Before we get to the finish, lets rewind to when Kligerman was in the XFINITY Series in 2013. His team owner?
“What I always liked about Kyle (Busch) is you always knew where you stood,” said Kligerman of his relationship with his former boss. “He’s not someone that’s going to go behind your back and start talking about you, saying one thing to your face. He will literally straight up tell you if you’re doing something wrong.
“I always enjoyed that when I raced for him. I enjoyed learning from him, how frank he was when he would tell me things I should be doing better, could be doing better. I liked that.
“I always just had a lot of respect for him. Obviously he’s one of the greatest of all time, if not one of the most talented of all time. I feel like he has always been someone that has a mutual respect for myself on the broadcast side.
“I’ve always been able to reach out to him about Truck Series stuff, we talk about it sometimes. I think it’s just one of those relationships that he has been a good friend I knew I could rely on at times.
“Add in that we’re both driving Toyotas. Toyota doesn’t have a lot of cars in this race. It’s better when there’s more Toyotas in the race. Very happy to have him as a Toyota teammate.”
Now, back to the closing laps. Busch, fell back and gave Kligerman drafting help. Kligerman, got by Reddick and made his car as wide as possible over the final laps to hold him off for a very special 12th place finish in the first Duel. That run locked Kligerman into the Daytona 500.
“Landon Cassill told me the best feeling he’s ever had in a racecar was the time he raced in the Daytona 500,” a happy Kligerman said after clinching his way into the big show on Sunday. “It is because 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.”
Crossing the finish line was bittersweet though. See, Kligerman knew then that he was in. Such a joyous occasion. But, because he was in, his good friend Truex as out. It was hard for him as well knowing that he was the reason his good friend wasn’t going to be in the ‘500.
“It comes at the expense of a good friend of mine, Ryan Truex,” said Kligerman of making it in. “When I crossed the finish line in there, knew I was in, it was a bit bittersweet, pretty crazy, it’s at his expense.
“He’s a good friend, a really talented racecar driver. I think he is an underrated racecar driver. I hate we were put in that position. I told him that before the race.”
Now, Kligerman gets to reestablish his dream of being a Cup driver and do so in the year’s biggest race.