A GOOD START

Young Hen­drick driv­ers sweep front-row spots for Day­tona 500 lineup

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - 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.

By­ron, 21, and Hen­drick team­mate Alex Bow­man, 25, locked in the front row for The Great Amer­i­can Race dur­ing qual­i­fy­ing laps Sun­day at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way. They will be the youngest front-row com­bi­na­tion in Day­tona 500 his­tory.

The cov­eted start­ing spot hasn’t meant much at the NASCAR Cup Series sea­son opener over the past two decades, though. The last driver to start in pole po­si­tion and win the race was Dale Jar­rett in 2000, and the past four pole-sit­ters — Hen­drick’s Jeff Gor­don, Chase El­liott (twice) and Bow­man — have failed to notch a top-10 fin­ish.

Team owner Rick Hen­drick, how­ever, isn’t about to trade the early ad­van­tage for next Sun­day’s race.

“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 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,” the 47-year-old 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 for its top-tier series.

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 com­pet­ing for four open spots in the 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 Day­tona 500 dur­ing the qual­i­fy­ing races. Two of them will make it, and the other two won’t.

By­ron and his team­mates will spend this week be­ing lauded as fa­vorites. They will also 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 twoedge 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 for his or­ga­ni­za­tion, call­ing it one of the worst in team his­tory.

The Hen­drick cars were medi­ocre at best — John­son failed to win at least once in a sea­son for the first time in his Cup Series ca­reer — and it took 22 races for the or­ga­ni­za­tion to get its first vic­tory. The fi­nal tally for Hen­drick in­cluded three

Al­ready in trou­ble

wins for El­liott and none of its driv­ers among the four el­i­gi­ble for the cham­pi­onship in the sea­son 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.

Later Sun­day, John­son won the Ad­vance Auto Parts Clash, an al­ls­tar ex­hi­bi­tion to get Speed­weeks rolling.

For at least one day — and maybe even a week — Hen­drick’s moves seem to be pay­ing off.

“You work all these years com­ing down here, and you want all the cars to run well,” Hen­drick said. “… 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.”

NASCAR has ejected the car chiefs for Austin Dil­lon, Ty Dil­lon and El­liott through the Day­tona 500 for re­peated in­spec­tion fail­ures be­fore qual­i­fy­ing for the race.

The driv­ers also were docked 15 min­utes from the fi­nal Cup Series prac­tice be­fore next Sun­day’s race. NASCAR has cracked down this sea­son on in­spec­tion fail­ures and will dis­qual­ify race-win­ning cars shown to have vi­o­lated reg­u­la­tions.

Greg Ebert for Austin Dil­lon, Billy Plourde for Ty Dil­lon and Josh Kirk for El­liott will not be al­lowed to re­turn to the garage un­til the sea­son’s sec­ond race, Feb. 24 at At­lanta Mo­tor Speed­way.

Austin Dil­lon won the Day­tona 500 for Richard Chil­dress Rac­ing last sea­son. Ty Dil­lon, his younger brother, com­petes for Ger­main Rac­ing.

AP PHOTO/TERRY RENNA

NASCAR Cup Series driver Alex Bow­man, left, con­grat­u­lates Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports team­mate Wil­liam By­ron af­ter their qual­i­fy­ing runs Sun­day at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way. At next Sun­day’s Day­tona 500, By­ron will be in pole po­si­tion and Bow­man will join him on the front row of the start­ing lineup. By­ron, 21, and Bow­man, 25, will form the youngest front-row com­bi­na­tion in Day­tona 500 his­tory.

AP PHOTO/JOHN RAOUX

Austin Dil­lon looks up at the leader­board dur­ing Sun­day’s qual­i­fy­ing for the Day­tona 500 at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way. Dil­lon’s car chief was ejected for re­peated in­spec­tion fail­ures be­fore qual­i­fy­ing for the race.

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