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Rookies earn coveted Daytona berth

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for about three decades, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Speed Stick Gear sponsors Cole Whitt’s Toyota. That was fitting Thursday night.

Whitt coolly qualified for Sunday’s Daytona 500 by finishing 12th in the first Budweiser Duel at Daytona International Speedway.

Whitt is a rookie in Sprint Cup racing. So is Alex Bowman, who finished three spots behind Whitt and also qualified.

Whitt, 22, is from Alpine, Calif. Bowman, 20, is from Tucson, Ariz. Because their teams also are new, the only way they make Sunday’s race is to make the top 15.

Think about it. The owners of their teams are at Daytona International Speedway. The sponsors of their teams are at the track, as are their families. If they don’t make the race, they have to stay and mingle with sponsors and fans and pretend they’re having a good time.

They don’t have to pretend.

Whitt was involved in an accident Wednesday. Not only did he and his team have to come back from the wreck but they had to make up several positions on the final lap.

“My guys pulled it together and made it happen, and my hats off to them,” Whitt said. “To be in the Daytona 500 is something I’ve dreamed of my whole life.”

Bowman also had to pick up three or four spots in the final lap.

His spotter told him: “We need much more than were we’re at.”

So Bowman did.

“To make the Daytona 500, it’s something I’ve watched as a kid every year and it just means a lot to me and my family,” he said.

As Whitt and then Bowman walked into the media center for the first Daytona post-race interviews of their lives, the three seats at the front of the room were occupied by veterans Kevin Harvick (who finished second), Kasey Kahne (third) and Josh Wise (sixth).

The rookies, two of eight in Sprint Cup, stood to the side, seen but not heard.

They earned the opportunity to be heard Sunday.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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