By Jacob Seelman, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – He went unheralded for virtually the entire Great American Race, but Riley Herbst came away from Daytona Int’l Speedway Sunday night with a top-10 finish in his NASCAR Cup Series debut.
Herbst kept his No. 15 Sunny D Ford Mustang out of the lead draft for the vast majority of the 65th Daytona 500, making sure his race car was preserved so that he could get to the finish while still trying to learn as much as possible against the best stock car drivers in North America.
Those efforts paid dividends for the 23-year-old Las Vegas native, as Herbst managed to avoid every major accident that took place over the course of the day, while others were swept up in the chaos and eliminated from contention.
Though he got a minor piece of the lap-203 crash that sent the race into double overtime, running into the back of fellow Daytona 500 rookie Zane Smith’s Ford, Herbst was able to weather the storm with minimal damage. He later picked his way through the final melee that ended the race under caution.
As a result, Herbst secured a 10th-place finish and unofficial Daytona 500 rookie-of-the-race honors. He was the highest-finishing first-time competitor in Sunday’s Great American Race, outperforming action sports star Travis Pastrana, Zane Smith, Ty Gibbs and Indy car veteran Conor Daly –
On paper, it was a brilliant Cup Series debut for Herbst, who will run the full NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule again this season and chase a championship with Stewart-Haas Racing.
However, Herbst’s competitive fire meant that he was slightly disappointed with having to wait out back for so long before finally getting to work near the finish.
“It was long and a lot of riding, not really racing. I was kind of biding my time and trying to get experience,” noted Herbst, who drove for Rick Ware Racing on Sunday. “But to finish [in the] top 10 was really cool. I am thankful for the opportunity to be here in the Cup Series and really happy with this finish in our first 500.”
Herbst’s strong result was part of a race-long rally that saw him come back from a lap down, after spinning at the entrance to pit road and copping a commitment line violation on his first pit stop of the day at lap 40.
Among first-time Daytona 500 starters, Herbst is the first event rookie to earn a top-10 finish since both Ryan Preece (eighth) and Ross Chastain (10th) did so in the 2019 Daytona 500.
Meanwhile, for team owner Rick Ware, Sunday was the third top-10 finish in the Daytona 500 for Rick Ware Racing over the past four years. David Ragan finished fourth for the team in 2020 and added an eighth-place run last February.
With Daytona Speedweeks in the rear-view mirror, Herbst will turn his focus back to the Xfinity Series, where he’ll move to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on Feb. 25 for the Production Alliance Group 300.
It will mark his next step toward, hopefully, contending for a championship this season – something the young gun is particularly eager to do.
“It was a tough first year at Stewart-Haas, but last year I feel like we stepped up our performance at a very notable level … and, hopefully, we can do the same thing again this year to a higher standard and compete for wins,” Herbst said Wednesday during pre-race media appearances prior to the Daytona 500. “Obviously, we have a teammate in Cole Custer and we’ll use him all we can.
“I’ve never been this excited for a full-time racing series 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,” Herbst continued. “The biggest thing is to perform at that high level and to go execute so that we can be a [title] contender when Phoenix comes around.”