Daytona Beach, Fla. – William Byron put Hendrick Motorsports in a familiar position: on the pole for the Daytona 500. His bigger goal is to make the starting spot pay dividends for the NASCAR powerhouse.
The 21-year-old Byron and 25-year-old teammate Alex Bowman locked in the front row for “The Great American Race” during qualifying laps Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. They comprise the youngest front row in Daytona 500 history.
The coveted starting spot hasn’t meant much for NASCAR’s season opener over the last two decades, though. The last Daytona 500 pole-sitter to win the race was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
The last four — Hendrick’s Jeff Gordon, Chase Elliott (twice) and Bowman — have failed to notch a top-10 finish.
“To have them on top of each other means the organization did a heck of a job,” Hendrick said. “This is the deal to sit on the pole at Daytona.”
Byron and Bowman edged the other two Hendrick drivers: seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and fan favorite Chase Elliott.
“That’s a pretty amazing feat, I feel,” said longtime Hendrick crew chief Chad Knaus, who is entering his first season with Byron after 18 years with Johnson.
Knaus and Johnson landed the Daytona 500 pole in their first race together in 2002. After splitting with Johnson at the end of last season, Knaus essentially repeated the feat with Byron.
“I think it’s huge,” Knaus said. “We’ve had a lot of late nights, a lot of long hours. The last time I came here with a new driver, we sat on the pole. This is really special for me.”
Byron reached a top speed of 194.304 mph in the final round of qualifying, nearly two-tenths of a second faster than Bowman (194.153).
“I thought we were going to be somewhere in the hunt,” Byron said. “I was excited to get down here and see what we had. It’s really cool.”
The rest of the 40-car lineup will be set by two qualifying races Thursday. Thirty-six of those spots are already filled because of NASCAR’s charter system.
Former Hendrick driver Casey Mears and Tyler Reddick secured two of the remaining spots in the Daytona 500. They posted the top speeds of the six drivers vying for four open spots in NASCAR’s season opener.
“I really feel like we’ll be able to be competitive,” Mears said. “I can tell you this: I’ve been at Daytona with a lot less and ran inside the top five.”
Joey Gase, Ryan Truex, Parker Kligerman and Brandan Gaughan likely will have to race their way into the 500 during the qualifying races. Two of them will make it, and the other two won’t.
Byron and his teammates will spend the week being lauded as the Daytona 500 favorites. They also will try to stay out of trouble in the qualifying races.
“We want to take care of the cars for sure,” Hendrick said. “We don’t want to put the cars in any unnecessary harm’s way. It’s kind of a two-edge sword on the front row. You don’t want to take a chance of tearing up a really good car, but you’ve got to figure out what to race.”
Hendrick has been outspoken about how difficult the 2018 season was on the organization, calling it one of the worst in team history.
The Hendrick cars were mediocre at best – Johnson failed to win for the first time in his Cup career – and it took 22 races for the organization to get its first victory. The final tally included three victories for Elliott and no drivers in the championship-deciding finale for the second consecutive year.
Hendrick responded by splitting up Johnson and Knaus, tasking Knaus with building another team around Byron. A new racing package in 2019 also should benefit Bowman and Byron because neither had much experience under the old rules.
For at least one day or maybe even a week, the moves are paying off.
“You work all these years coming down here and you want all the cars to run well,” Hendrick said. “And if you have one up front and a couple in the back, in the middle; but this is a tribute to our organization, the engine shop, the chassis, body shop, and the teams to come down here and run with four cars running that good. I can’t believe it.”
Johnson triggers wreck, then wins Clash
Jimmie Johnson’s youngest daughter prays every night for Daddy to win a race. When Johnson scuffled through the worst season of his career, he felt the strain of not reaching victory lane.
“It was putting some pressure on me,” Johnson said.
Johnson called the invocation “cute to hear.”
He didn’t feel the same about critical comments saying Johnson was past his prime. The 43-year-old Johnson tweeted “I’m far from done” in the offseason, and with a risky move in the rain, he showed there’s plenty left.
Johnson triggered a wreck that wiped out nearly the entire 20-car field at Daytona and zipped to the lead to win the rain-shortened exhibition Clash on Sunday.
The seven-time Cup Series champion failed to win a race for the first time in his career in 2018, but a dose of aggression put him back in victory lane during the opening weekend of Speedweeks. Johnson’s win capped a banner day for Hendrick Motorsports: teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman locked in the front row for the Daytona 500 earlier in the day in qualifying.
“It’s been a pretty awesome day,” Hendrick said. “I hate we had the wreck there at the end, but it’s been a really good day for the team.”
The celebration at Daytona comes with a caveat: the last Daytona 500 pole-sitter to win the race was Dale Jarrett in 2000, and Johnson’s victory doesn’t count in the official NASCAR record book.
Paul Menard led 51 laps and controlled the race interrupted three times for rain. With more rain looming, Johnson dipped low and tried to side-draft Menard as they battled for the lead. But Johnson turned Menard and started a chain-reaction accident that left cars sideways and smoking behind the No. 48 Chevrolet.
“I looked in the mirror and there were a lot of cars caught up in it,” Johnson said.
The rain that ended the race hit not long after the decisive move and Johnson won for the first time with new crew chief Kevin Meendering and new primary sponsor Ally.
“I inherited a great core group of guys with the 48 team,” Meendering said. “There’s a strong foundation there, and the team really works well together, and it gels together It’s made that transition a lot easier.”
Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus split at the end of last season after seven championships. Knaus beat Johnson in the race to the first race day bash – by just a few hours. But the race to victory lane in a race that really counts comes in the regular season, and Johnson hasn’t won a Cup race since June 4, 2017 at Dover.
“We still need a points race win to say we’re back in victory lane,” Johnson said. “But it was a great first step today.”
The wreck came 55 laps into the 75-lap event, and the race was called just four laps later. Kurt Busch was second, followed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Bowman.
Busch said team owner Chip Ganassi complained to NASCAR about Johnson driving below the double-yellow line to make the move. But Johnson was not penalized because he wreck forced him that low.
“I think Johnson had a legitimate run to go for the lead,” Busch said.
Menard was positioned to win for Wood Brothers Racing only weeks after the death of team founder Glen Wood. Wood was 93 and had been the oldest living member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame when he died last month after a long illness.
“I felt like it was aggressive side-drafting,” Menard said. “I got turned to the inside and hooked to the right and all hell broke loose.”
Johnson had been caught up in many crashes in the Clash, failing to finish on the lead lap in each of the seven exhibition races. He was down at least 25 laps in five straight Clashes, and understands just how quickly a race at Daytona can change.
“I have a split-second decision to try to win a race, and I set up the pass and got position on him clean, “Johnson said. “ I don’t know what triggered his car wobbling and then the accident started from there.”
Johnson had already proved at Daytona he was good on the long run – and with the 48 in the garage. He competed in the 40 to 44 age division early Sunday in the Daytona Beach half marathon and finished with a time of 1 hour, 34 minutes, 18.4 seconds.
When: Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Daytona International Speedway
2018 winner: Austin Dillon