Cole Whitt Daytona 500
Credit: Sean Gardner / Getty Images

Cole Whitt has had one of the most dramatic Daytona 500 debuts in recent memory and the race hasn't even started yet. On Wednesday, the 22-year-old former truck circuit racer skidded hard into the wall during a practice run. "A bolt went through the nose and the tire," he told Men's Journal. "So our crew had to go to work." The side of the Camry was severely dented and Swan Racing's backup car had been reassigned to Parker Kligerman, who totaled his Toyota in a seven-car crash. So Whitt and his crew had to hustle to prepare for Thursday's Budweiser Duels, the last qualifier.

You've got to believe that whatever happens, it's going to turn out for the best," Whitt said before walking back out onto the track. Still, his resilient optimism had only earned Whitt the 17th spot going into the final lap and he needed 15th to make the 500 field. He found a right lane, floored his bandaged car – far from the fastest on the track on a good day – and finished twelfth.

When the green flag waves on Sunday, Whitt will be competing in a field thick with NASCAR's aging stars, men he grew up rooting for back in Alpine, California. Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Johnson: Whitt says the names with reverence. "I look up to them," he adds, "but you've got to treat them as competition come race day." And Whitt, whose campaign is being filmed by his sponsor Speedstick for a YouTube documentary, won't be the only one racing his idols: This year's race will feature more rookies than any Daytona in the last decade. 

"It's one of the most talented rookie fields Daytona has ever had and it's exciting to have people talking about that," says Whitt. "You want to think about yourself as part of the next generation, but none of this stuff is guaranteed."

That sense that the ride could end abruptly motivates Whitt and pits him against the other young drivers looking to find a permanent spot on the circuit. With Austin Dillon, who won the pole, Landon Cassill, Alex Bowman, Brian Scott, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman, and Kyle Larson in the pits, the question is which racers will be able to set themselves apart. Whitt knows Larson from the Camping World Truck Series, and hangs out with Kligerman, his teammate, but admits NASCAR's freshman class isn't particularly close. They are, after all, all eyeing that "Rookie of the Year" title hungrily. "We're 22 and on the largest stage in racing," Whitt says. "We want to beat each other."

With the qualification drama behind him and Number 26 patched up, Whitt is ready for the main event. It's his first 500 – "the biggest race of my career" – and, like his competition, he'll overcome whatever obstacle he needs to in order to make sure it's not his last.