By­ron wins pole, con­tin­ues Hen­drick’s dom­i­nance

Baltimore Sun - - RAVENS - By Mark Long

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).

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“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. Thir­tysix 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.”

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