By Jacob Seelman, Featured Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Though his main focus for 2023 will be on winning a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship with Stewart-Haas Racing, Riley Herbst still has other aspirations he wants to achieve.
One of those bucket list items will come Sunday afternoon, when the 23-year-old Las Vegas native makes his NASCAR Cup Series debut on stock car racing’s biggest stage, the Daytona 500.
Herbst will get an early birthday present when he straps into the No. 15 Sunny D Ford Mustang for Rick Ware Racing at Daytona Int’l Speedway, making his first appearance at NASCAR’s top level five days before turning 24.
He won’t have to stress over trying to make the race on speed or on merit, because the RWR entry that Herbst will wheel in The Great American Race is locked into the field as one of 36 chartered, full-season cars.
How was he feeling in the hours leading up to time trials, knowing that no matter what happens Wednesday or in the Duel 150 qualifying races Thursday night, he’ll be in the big show on Sunday?
“I’m nervous, but I think that just comes with the [anticipation of racing in the] Daytona 500,” a grinning Herbst said Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day. “This is the biggest race in North America. This is one [that] every kid dreams of racing [in], so I’m excited.
“Obviously, there are some nerves, but more excitement,” he added. “I’m just super thankful and blessed to be here and able to accomplish a childhood dream, for sure.”
Herbst noted that, while Rick Ware’s NASCAR operation no longer has a technical alliance with SHR, the team at KHI Management helped him to secure a Daytona 500 ride in a way that fit alongside his pre-existing Xfinity Series duties.
“It came together a couple of months ago with Rick Ware Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. There were [just] some fine lines because Stewart-Haas doesn’t have that relationship with Rick Ware anymore; they’ve moved on to RFK … but this was more put together by the management group at KHI so that I could get good experience in a Cup car,” Herbst explained. “To go out there stress-free and just get as much experience as I can is the goal, but I’m going to take it all in because this is the Daytona 500.
“Obviously, you only get to do one first and [Xfinity team owner Tony Stewart] told me to take in the moment.”
Herbst was quick to tip that, in his search for the right situation to make his Daytona 500 debut, being able to do so in a chartered car was “a big deal” in the grand scheme of the race weekend.
Being locked into the show allows Herbst the freedom over the next 36 hours to focus on preparing for race day on Sunday, rather than focusing all his effort solely on making the race.
“For myself, as a young driver who has never driven a Cup car before, when NASCAR doesn’t really give you much practice before qualifying and the Duels … [having the charter] takes a lot of the pressure off because I don’t have to go put in a fast time tonight and I also don’t have to race my way in tomorrow night,” said Herbst. “I can just go out there and learn the car, learn how these drive on superspeedways and get ready for the 500 on Sunday.
“As a rookie, if I was greedy, I’d like to have a little bit of practice today and then another one before the Duels, but I can get away with no practice for qualifying. I do wish we had a session before the Duels tomorrow, because that’s my first time ever racing in a Cup car, but we’re locked in and I don’t really have to worry about that,” he added. “I can use the Duel as a practice session and be ready for Sunday.”
How will Herbst grade his first Daytona 500 effort on Sunday?
“I think just getting all the experience I can will make it a success. This is a very tough race, not only to make, but to run up front, so we’re gonna try to complete all 500 miles and be there at the end,” Herbst tipped. “The goal for me is simple: I want to become a better race car driver after Sunday, so when I strap into a car at Talladega in my Xfinity car I’ll have more tools in my toolbox, I’ll have more experience on superspeedways and I’ll know that I’ve raced with the best here on Sunday.
“Those are all things that I can take to the Xfinity Series and, hopefully, up my game there as well.”
Beyond Sunday’s Daytona 500, Herbst will also compete in the 300-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener on Saturday afternoon at Daytona, beginning his quest for a championship in that series.
He’s hoping that a positive Cup Series debut will lead to success on the Xfinity Series side, as Herbst seeks to bounce back from a tough 2022 season that saw him go winless and finish a disappointing 10th in the season standings.
“There’s a lot of information on the table this weekend, and I’m very focused on the Xfinity Series. This is a huge year for my career in my Xfinity car, so I’m extremely focused on that aspect and I know that I can’t let this whole Xfinity deal get lost by the wayside with this Cup race,” Herbst noted. “We’re gonna try to compartmentalize each day and take it one step at a time. Obviously, the Xfinity race is important to me and we have to excel there, but when it comes to Sunday and racing [in the Daytona 500], I can learn a lot from the Duels and on Sunday, just with how these things draft and how they race against other people.
“The biggest thing I’m hoping to learn come Monday is how much better of a race car driver I became over the course of these five days, and how I can take that into my Xfinity car and go perform at a high level there.”
Performing at a high level will mean matching or exceeding the performance of SHR veteran Cole Custer, a former Cup Series regular who returns to the Xfinity Series ranks this season in a team car to Herbst.
Some might think that creates pressure for Herbst, but the young gun said he’s eager for the opportunity to show the racing industry what he’s made of throughout the season.
“There’s definitely pressure [on me], but I’m excited,” Herbst affirmed. “I’ve never been this excited for a full-time season in my life like I am for this year in the Xfinity Series, just because I feel like Stewart-Haas Racing’s Xfinity program is at a high level right now.
“Having Cole come down will only elevate my team as well, so hopefully we can use that to our advantage this whole year, not just at Daytona.”