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Vietnam vet Mark Thompson to make Daytona 500 start at 66

Mark Thompson prepares to climb into his car

Mark Thompson prepares to climb into his car before practice for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. Credit: AP / Terry Renna

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The oldest driver in the Daytona 500 field is truly a race veteran. Mark Thompson did a tour of duty in Vietnam that wrapped two decades before his NASCAR debut.

Never heard of the racing sexagenarian?

—He made his Cup debut at Pocono in 1992 against the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Alan Kulwicki.

—He’s the oldest pole winner for any Daytona race.

—The 66-year-old Thompson puts a surprising bow on his racing career when he becomes the oldest driver to ever start the Daytona 500.

When he fires the engines next week, it’ll be back at his day job as a pilot for the Phoenix Air Group he founded in 1978.

“I think the quality of driver in Cup is really quite outstanding,” Thompson said Friday. “Even though I might be running around with some younger people, they are seasoned. I’ve known some young pilots that were really good pilots and I’ve known some old pilots that were never all that good.”

Thompson decided to give it one final run in the No. 66 (get it?) Ford and said the Daytona 500 will be his last race in any series.

“I’m in reasonably good shape and I have other things I’d like to do,” he said.

Thompson is a veteran of the ARCA Series and became the oldest pole winner at Daytona International Speedway at 63 in the series’ season-opening race in 2015. He was 39 when he made his ARCA debut at Daytona in 1991 and won two races in the series over 100 career starts.

Thompson, thin, fit and looking younger than his years, failed in his attempts to qualify for the 1993 and 1994 Daytona 500. His realistic goal is to finish the race in the Ford he got from Richard Petty Motorsports and to stay out of the way of the leaders.

“I’m good pilot because that’s what I do,” he said. “These guys are good race-car drivers because that’s what they do. I hope to not to get in anyone’s way.”

Thompson may have a caught a small break for “The Great American Race” when the entry list featured only the maximum 40 cars. He starts 40th.

NASCAR has no age limit. James Hylton is the oldest driver to start a NASCAR race. He was 76 for the 2011 Truck Series race at Pocono.

Thompson turns 67 on July 9. Dave Marcis at 60 years, 11 months, 16 days had been the oldest driver to race in the Daytona 500 in 2002. NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison was 50 when he became the oldest Daytona 500 winner in history in 1988.

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