Daniel Hemric was surprised.
Actually, shocked might be a better description.
But when Daytona 500 single-car qualifying shook out on Sunday, Hemric was fifth on the board, behind only the dominant Hendrick Motorsports quartet of Busch Pole winner William Byron, Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott.
“We never got to do a full qualifying run on practice day there,” said Hemric, who as a Kannapolis, N.C., native carries the additional weight of driving the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. That car number forever will be associated with “Driver 8”—Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Hemric added. “I said to (crew chief) Luke Lambert, ‘What are we going to run?’ and he said, ‘Honestly, dude, if we could have run that (mock qualifying) lap, I’d have a lot better idea for you, but I don’t know either.
“When I saw my teammate, Austin Dillon (the 2018 Daytona 500 winner), go to the top of the board early on, he ran a good bit faster than what we expected our cars to run. It gave me some confidence that maybe we could lock into the second round and have a shot at that, let alone to qualify fifth.”
The Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender, who has two previous Monster Energy Cup Series starts to his credit—and none at Daytona—was still enjoying his qualifying success when he took questions from reporters Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway.
“We were incredibly proud, because so much effort goes into building these race cars, and so much in the offseason between ECR (Earnhardt-Childress Racing Engines), Chevrolet and RCR. It’s our biggest event, and you want to come down here and have speed.
“I know it’s early in the week by the time you qualify, but it’s something that gets the momentum rolling for the week.”
Qualifying is one thing. Racing is another, and Hemric has never raced a Cup car in a draft with 39 other drivers.
“I’ve never driven these cars in a big, big pack,” Hemric acknowledged. “I think Luke’s leadership, running this team as a crew chief… I think he’s given me the raceability in our race cars, once we do get in a pack, from qualifying to race adjustments.
“When we run the 150s (the Gander RV Duel 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday night), it’s going to be cooler, so your handling may not show up quite as quick, but once the sun comes out of Sunday, you’re going to have to have your stuff driving good. He’s been beating that in my head pretty early on in the offseason to make sure we’re prepared and know what we need for the draft—and I feel like we’re ready.”