By­ron wins Day­tona 500 pole, puts Hen­drick up front again

Last Day­tona 500 pole­sit­ter to win race was Dale Jar­rett in 2000.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - SPORTS -

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.

GETTY

Wil­liam By­ron (right) poses af­ter win­ning the pole award along­side sec­ond-place fin­isher Alex Bow­man (left) on Sun­day at Day­tona.

JARED C. TILTON / GETTY IM­AGES

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.

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