By­ron, 21, cap­tures pole for Day­tona 500

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - SPORTS - By Mark Long Mark Long is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

DAY­TONA BEACH, Fla. — Wil­liam By­ron on Sun­day 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 team­mate Alex Bow­man, 25, locked in the front row for “The Great Amer­i­can Race” next Sun­day dur­ing qual­i­fy­ing laps 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 past two decades, though. The last Day­tona 500 pole­sit­ter to win the race was Dale Jar­rett in 2000.

The past four — Hen­drick’s Jeff Gor­don, Chase El­liott (twice) and Bow­man — have failed to record 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 Chase El­liott.

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 filled be­cause of NASCAR’s char­ter sys­tem.

Day­tona Clash: John­son trig­gered a wreck that wiped out nearly the en­tire field and zipped to the lead to win the rain-short­ened ex­hi­bi­tion.

The seven-time Cup Series cham­pion failed to win a race last sea­son for the first time in his ca­reer but a dose of aggression put him back in vic­tory lane in the first week­end of Speed­weeks.

Paul Me­nard led 51 laps and con­trolled the race in­ter­rupted mul­ti­ple times for rain. With more rain loom­ing, John­son dipped low and tried to sid­e­draft Me­nard as they fought for the lead. John­son then turned Me­nard and started a chain-re­ac­tion ac­ci­dent.

“I looked in the mir­ror and there were a lot of cars caught up in it,” John­son said.

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