DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – William Byron has positioned Hendrick Motorsports in a familiar position: on the pole for the Daytona 500. His most important goal is to ensure that the starting point pays dividends to the NASCAR powerhouse.
Byron, 21, and his teammate, Alex Bowman, 25, made the best start to the race "The Great American Race" in qualifying on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. They are the youngest front line in the history of Daytona 500.
The coveted starting point, however, did not have much to do with the opening of the NASCAR season over the past two decades. Dale Jarrett, in 2000, was the last to win the race at pole position.
The last four players – Jeff Gordon, Hendrick, Chase Elliott (twice) and Bowman – failed to rank in the top 10.
"Having them one on the other means that the organization has done a hell of a job," said Hendrick. "It's okay to sit on the pole in Daytona."
Byron and Bowman beat the other two Hendrick riders: Jimmie Johnson, seven-time Cup champion, and Chase Elliott, the fan favorite.
"It's an incredible feat, I think," said Chad Knaus, Hendrick's long-time team leader, starting his first season with Byron after 18 years with Johnson.
Knaus and Johnson won the first pole of the Daytona 500 in their first race together in 2002. After separating with Johnson at the end of last season, Knaus essentially repeated the feat with Byron.
"I think it's huge," said Knaus. "We spent a lot of nights late, a lot of long hours. The last time I came here with a new driver, we sat on the pole. It's really special for me.
Byron reached a top speed of 194.304 mph in the last qualifying lap, almost two-tenths of a second faster than Bowman (194.153).
"I thought we were going to be somewhere in the hunt," said Byron. "I was excited to see here what we had. It's really cool. "
The rest of the 40-car range will be determined by two qualifying races on Thursday. Thirty-six of these positions are already filled due to the NASCAR charter system.
Former Hendrick rider Casey Mears and Tyler Reddick earned two of the remaining spots in the Daytona 500. They recorded the best speeds of the six riders competing for four free spots in the first game of the NASCAR season. .
"I really think we can be competitive," said Mears. "I can tell you this: I was in Daytona with a lot less and I ran in the top five."
Joey Gase, Ryan Truex, Parker Kligerman and Brandan Gaughan will likely have to qualify for the 500m in qualifying. Two of them will arrive and the other two will not.
Byron and his teammates will spend the week being hailed as Daytona 500 favorites. They will also try to avoid trouble during the qualifying races.
"We want to take care of cars for sure," said Hendrick. "We do not want to put cars in a state of unnecessary nuisance. It's a kind of two-edged sword in the front row. You do not want to take the risk of tearing a very good car, but you must know what to run. "
Hendrick said how difficult the 2018 season was for the organization, calling it one of the worst in the team's history.
Hendrick cars were mediocre at best – Johnson did not win for the first time in his Cup career – and it took 22 races for the organization to get its first win. The final count included three wins for Elliott and no driver in the championship playoff final for the second year in a row.
Hendrick responded by separating Johnson and Knaus, charging Knaus to form another team around Byron. A new race package in 2019 should also benefit Bowman and Byron because none of them had much experience under the old rules.
For at least a day, or even a week, the moves are paying off.
"You work all these years and you want all cars to work well," said Hendrick. And if you have one in front and a couple in the back, in the middle; but it's a tribute to our organization, the engine shop, the chassis, the body shop and the teams that came here and ran with four cars that work so well. I can not believe. "