By­ron wins pole for Day­tona 500

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - SPORTS - By 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-year-old 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,” 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.

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 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.

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

“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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