DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Over the course of his career, Daniel Hemric wasn’t sure if his grit and effort would be enough to catapult him all the way to the top level of professional stock-car racing in North America.

However, hard work and perseverance allowed Hemric to land with Richard Childress Racing, where he’ll make his first start in NASCAR’s biggest race – the Daytona 500 – on Sunday afternoon.

Hemric has already had an impressive Speedweeks, posting the fifth-fastest time during Busch Pole Qualifying last weekend and coming the closest to dethroning, or at least interrupting, the dominance of the Hendrick Motorsports quartet that swept the top-four positions on the speed charts.

It was a run that the Kannapolis, N.C., native admitted was a bit of a shock to both he and his crew.

“Absolutely I was surprised,” Hemric said Wednesday morning as Daytona 500 Media Day kicked off at Daytona Int’l Speedway. “We didn’t get to do a full qualifying run on practice day, so I didn’t know what to expect. I asked Luke (Lambert, crew chief) what we were going to run and he said he didn’t have a good idea either. But when I saw my teammate Austin Dillon go top of the board early, and he went a good bit faster than what we expected our cars to run, it gave me some confidence that we could lock ourselves into the second round and have a shot … and then we went on to qualify fifth.

“We were incredibly proud of that result because there’s so much effort that goes into building these race cars in the offseason between ECR (Engines), Chevrolet and RCR,” Hemric continued. “This is 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 does give you momentum rolling into this week and I feel like we have that.”

What Hemric also has is a special car number, the No. 8, on his Chevrolet Camaros this season. It’s a number with a rich history in NASCAR, largely based around a certain family with the last name of Earnhardt that was born and built in the same town that Hemric grew up in – Kannapolis, N.C.

Being able to be the next driver to represent his hometown and build on its rich racing legacy is something that has Hemric amped up even before getting into the bulk of the week at Daytona.

Daniel Hemric at speed during practice at Daytona Int’l Speedway. (HHP/Andrew Coppley photo)

“For me, it’s a huge sense of pride to even be from Kannapolis,” noted Hemric. “There’s obviously a couple of guys who came before me from the same area, and we all know them and what they did for our sport, but I think there’s also a sense of pride throughout our race shop because the guys realize where I’ve come from and how I’ve gotten to this point. It puts a bit of pep in everyone’s step because it’s the realization of that ‘American Dream’ and the chance to make everything we want to happen.

“I’m pumped to carry the flag for my hometown and hope that we have a shot to build something incredible here off of that,” he added. “As a kid, I grew up being a Dale Earnhardt fan and pulled for that black No. 3 car. I never thought it would be possible to end up here driving for RCR, but here I am and I’m looking forward to taking advantage of it.”

That starts on Sunday during the Great American Race, an event that the 27-year-old hasn’t even fully processed he’ll finally be competing in despite his impressive performance in time trials.

Hemric said that racing in the Daytona 500 will likely set in for him during opening ceremonies Sunday.

“Probably (during) the National Anthem. There’s something about that feel, when you have tons of people around you but you see your group that’s stood behind you the entire time – between family and friends and car owners and a lot of other people – that’s just extra special,” he said. “That’s when you get to share that moment together, and it’s because of those folks that I get to be here today. The good thing is that we get to strap in the race cars quickly after that so we can get down to business.”

The business at hand will be attempting to win the Harley J. Earl Trophy to kick off the 50th anniversary season for Richard Childress Racing.

Should he accomplish that feat, Hemric said it would be “beyond words” for him.

“That would be a fairy tale ending, for sure. Fifty years is an incredible journey that Richard and Judy Childress have committed to our sport. To be in one of their race cars and knowing the history that comes with carrying the Richard Childress Racing logo is incredible in itself.

“We’re here and we have as good a shot as anybody, so we’ll go out swinging.”