By­ron wins Day­tona 500 pole, puts Hen­drick up front again

The Day - - SPORTS - By MARK LONG AP Sports Writer

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 top10 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 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.

Day­tona Beach, Fla. — Jim­mie John­son's youngest daugh­ter prays ev­ery night for Daddy to win a race. When John­son scuf­fled through the worst sea­son of his ca­reer, he felt the strain of not reach­ing vic­tory lane. "It was putting some pres­sure on me," John­son said. John­son called the in­vo­ca­tion "cute to hear." He didn't feel the same about crit­i­cal com­ments say­ing John­son was past his prime. The 43-year-old John­son tweeted "I'm far from done" in the off­sea­son, and with a risky move in the rain, he showed there's plenty left.

John­son trig­gered a wreck that wiped out nearly the en­tire 20-car field at Day­tona and zipped to the lead to win the rain-short­ened ex­hi­bi­tion Clash on Sun­day.

The seven-time Cup Series cham­pion failed to win a race for the first time in his ca­reer in 2018, but a dose of ag­gres­sion put him back in vic­tory lane dur­ing the open­ing week­end of Speed­weeks. John­son's win capped a ban­ner day for Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports: team­mates Wil­liam By­ron and Alex Bow­man locked in the front row for the Day­tona 500 ear­lier in the day in qual­i­fy­ing.

"It's been a pretty awe­some day," Hen­drick said. "I hate we had the wreck there at the end, but it's been a re­ally good day for the team."

The cel­e­bra­tion at Day­tona comes with a caveat: the last Day­tona 500 pole-sit­ter to win the race was Dale Jar­rett in 2000, and John­son's vic­tory doesn't count in the of­fi­cial NASCAR record book.

Paul Me­nard led 51 laps and con­trolled the race in­ter­rupted three 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.

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

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.

"I in­her­ited a great core group of guys with the 48 team," Meen­der­ing said. "There's a strong foun­da­tion there, and the team re­ally works well to­gether, and it gels to­gether It's made that tran­si­tion a lot eas­ier."

John­son and long­time crew chief Chad Knaus split at the end of last sea­son af­ter seven cham­pi­onships. Knaus beat John­son in the race to the first race day bash — by just a few hours. But the race to vic­tory lane in a race that re­ally counts comes in the reg­u­lar sea­son, and John­son hasn't won a Cup race since June 4, 2017 at Dover.

"We still need a points race win to say we're back in vic­tory lane," John­son said. "But it was a great first step to­day."

The wreck came 55 laps into the 75-lap event, and the race was called just four laps later. Kurt Busch was sec­ond, fol­lowed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Bow­man.

Busch said team owner Chip Ganassi com­plained to NASCAR about John­son driv­ing be­low the dou­ble-yel­low line to make the move. But John­son was not pe­nal­ized be­cause he wreck forced him that low.

"I think John­son had a le­git­i­mate run to go for the lead," Busch said.

Me­nard was po­si­tioned to win for Wood Brothers Rac­ing only weeks af­ter the death of team founder Glen Wood. Wood was 93 and had been the old­est liv­ing mem­ber of the NASCAR Hall of Fame when he died last month af­ter a long ill­ness. 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.

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 twoedge sword on the front row."

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 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. A new rac­ing pack­age in 2019 also should ben­e­fit Bow­man and By­ron be­cause nei­ther had much ex­pe­ri­ence un­der the old rules.

"You work all these years com­ing down here and you want all the cars to run well," Hen­drick said. "And if you have one up front and a cou­ple in the back, in the mid­dle; but 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."

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