Young By­ron wins Day­tona 500 pole for Hen­drick

The Arizona Republic - - Sports - 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-yearold 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,” team owner Rick 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 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.

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

“To have them on top of each other means the or­ga­ni­za­tion did a heck of a job. This is the deal to sit on the pole at Day­tona.”

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.

For at least one day or maybe even a week, the moves are pay­ing off.

Clash

DAY­TONA BEACH, Fla. – Jim­mie John­son trig­gered a wreck that wiped out nearly the en­tire field at Day­tona and zipped to the lead to win NASCAR’s rain-short­ened ex­hi­bi­tion Clash on Sun­day.

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.

JASEN VINLOVE/ USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Wil­liam By­ron, 21, right, stands with crew chief Chad Knaus dur­ing Day­tona 500 qual­i­fy­ing.

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