Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports rolls into Day­tona 500 with a fresh new look

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

DAY­TONA BEACH, FLA. » Rick Hen­drick threw a glam­orous party last fall when he for­mally in­tro­duced his 2018 driver lineup.

It was a lav­ish car un­veil­ing that used lasers, spot­lights and an em­cee to cel­e­brate a Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports ros­ter that had un­der­gone a dra­matic makeover.

Each of the four driv­ers was paired with some­one for the event. Chase El­liott was joined by his Hall of Fame father, Bill, who helped un­cover the new No. 9 his son will drive this year in his honor.

Wil­liam By­ron was in­tro­duced with Jeff Gor­don, who won four ti­tles in By­ron’s new No. 24. Alex Bow­man came out with Dale Earn­hardt Jr., the guy who helped him get his ride when Earn­hardt re­tired. The team owner ac­com­pa­nied seven-time NASCAR cham­pion and Hen­drick front­man Jim­mie John­son.

Stand­ing next to glit­ter­ing new race cars, the quar­tet was able to briefly mask the strik­ing youth­ful­ness of Hen­drick’s re­built or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Now, at the Day­tona 500, the four driv­ers stand alone.

They passed their first test, and the boss could not be prouder.

Bow­man, who sat out all of last year wait­ing for Earn­hardt’s seat to open, put a Hen­drick car on the Day­tona 500 pole for a record-ty­ing fourth con­sec­u­tive year. John­son was third fastest. By­ron, a rookie rushed into a Cup car this year be­cause Kasey Kahne was fired, was fifth. El­liott was 10th.

“We’ve got a lot of rac­ing to do and we’re go­ing to make mis­takes,” Hen­drick said. “But to come down here, it’s a state­ment by the whole or­ga­ni­za­tion to run four cars and get them that close.”

Hen­drick pre­emp­tively noted that the or­ga­ni­za­tion may have a roller-coaster sea­son, largely be­cause of the var­i­ous re­sumes on his ros­ter.

John­son is the best of his era, and even though El­liott is en­ter­ing just his third sea­son, he made NASCAR’s play­offs last year and proved he has the po­ten­tial to be a star.

Bow­man and By­ron? Well, no one knows yet.

By­ron won seven races as a rookie in the Truck Se­ries in 2016 and would have won the cham­pi­onship, too, but an en­gine fail­ure stopped him nine laps away from what should have been win No. 8.

He won the Xfin­ity Se­ries ti­tle last year, earn­ing the pro­mo­tion to the Cup se­ries. His Cup de­but will be the Day­tona 500, and his first time rac­ing a Cup car at all will be Thurs­day in a qual­i­fy­ing race. He’s 20.

Bow­man had a brief ca­reer as a back­marker in the Cup Se­ries, but was ba­si­cally out of a ride when he re­ceived a life­line from Earn­hardt. JR Mo­tor­sports got Bow­man nine Xfin­ity Se­ries races in 2016, and when Earn­hardt was side­lined, he pushed Hen­drick to put Bow­man in the car.

Bow­man was good enough in those 10 races — a golden-ticket-type au­di­tion — and landed the job full time when Earn­hardt re­tired. He had to sit out all of last year as he waited, but Hen­drick made it up to him with an en­gine that has him on the Day­tona 500 pole. He’s 24.

Aside from John­son, in his 17th sea­son, the ros­ter has a com­bined 158 Cup starts with zero vic­to­ries. It’s three kids, Hen­drick views it, at the start of their ca­reers. By­ron, Bow­man and El­liott are fast, and will now de­velop their tal­ents in the best equip­ment with on­the-job train­ing.

Hen­drick knows there will be bumps. But he doesn’t care be­cause there’s some fresh air in the build­ing.

“It’s fun, and that’s what I need at this point in my life. I need to have some fun,” Hen­drick said.

TERRY RENNA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Car owner Rick Hen­drick, front, with three of his team driv­ers — from back left, Alex Bow­man, Jim­mie John­son and Chase El­liott — stand on pit road at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way­be­fore qual­i­fy­ing for the Day­tona 500.

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