DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – William Byron has positioned Hendrick Motorsports in a familiar position: on the Daytona 500 pole. His most important goal is to make the starting point pay dividends to NASCAR.
Byron, 21, and teammate Alex Bowman, 25, made the best start for "The Great American Race" at the qualifying rounds on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. They are the youngest front line in the history of Daytona 500.
The coveted starting point did not, however, matter much for the first game of the NASCAR season in the last 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 – have 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 the agreement to stay on the pole at Daytona."
Byron and Bowman beat the two other Hendrick drivers: seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Elliott, a fan favorite.
"I think it's an incredible feat," said Chad Knaus, the Hendrick's long-time team leader, who enters 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," Knaus said. "We spent a lot of late nights, 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 come here and see what we had, it's really cool."
Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon and Austin Dillon car drivers were sent off by NASCAR via the Daytona 500 after several inspection failures before qualifying for the race.
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 driver, Casey Mears, and Tyler Reddick earned two of the remaining spots in the Daytona 500. They recorded the best speeds of the six drivers vying for four free spots during the match. opening of the NASCAR season.
"I really think we can be competitive," said Mears. "I can tell you this: I've been to Daytona with a lot less and raced in the top five."
Joey Gase, Ryan Truex, Parker Kligerman and Brendan Gaughan will likely have to qualify for the 500m in qualifying. Two of them will get there 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 create unnecessary damage to cars, 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 have to know what to do. "
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 here 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 is a tribute to our organization, to the workshop of engines, the chassis, the bodywork and the teams that will come here with four cars running as well.I can not believe it. "