Byron wins Daytona 500 pole, puts Hendrick up front again
Last Daytona 500 polesitter to win race was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
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 Speed- way. 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 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,” 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 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.”
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.
Clash: Jimmie Johnson triggered a wreck that wiped out nearly the entire field at Daytona and zipped to the lead to win the rain-shortened exhibition 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. Johnson’s win continued a banner day for Hendrick Motorsports.
Paul Menard led 51 laps
‘We’ve had a lot of late nights, a lot of long hours. ... This is really special for me.’ Chad Knaus Hendrick crew chief
and controlled the race interrupted multiple times for rain. With more rain looming, Johnson dipped low and tried to side-draft Menard as they battled for the lead. But Johnson turned Menard and started a chain-reaction accident that left cars sideways and smoking behind the No. 48 Chevrolet.
“Knowing the rain’s coming. I could see it coming,” Johnson said. “We could see it coming and I knew that was probably my lap to make the move and I had a great run down the back. I got below him before he blocked him. I think he came down a little bit to defend and block. I got that move inside of him and was hopeful the 1 was going to be following me through. Certainly hate to see all these cars tore up.”
The rain that ended the race hit not long after the decisive move and Johnson won for the first time with new crew chief Kevin Meendering and new primary sponsor Ally.
Johnson had turned a few extra laps at Daytona — with the 48 in the garage. He finished first in his 40 to 44 age division early Sunday in the Daytona Beach half marathon with a time of 1 hour, 34 minutes, 18.4 seconds.
Etc.: NASCAR ejected the car chiefs for Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon and Austin Dillon through the Daytona 500 for repeated inspection failures before qualifying for the race.
The drivers also were docked 15 minutes from the final Cup practice before next Sunday’s race. NASCAR has cracked down this season on inspection failures and will disqualify race-winning cars that break the rules.
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 next race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
William Byron (right) poses after winning the pole award alongside second-place finisher Alex Bowman (left) on Sunday at Daytona.
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona on Sunday.