DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — William Byron on Sunday 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.
Byron, 21, and teammate Alex Bowman, 25, locked in the front row for “The Great American Race” next Sunday during qualifying laps 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 past two decades, though. The last Daytona 500 pole-sitter to win the race was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
The past four — Hendrick’s Jeff Gordon, Chase Elliott (twice) and Bowman — have failed to record 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 Chase Elliott.
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 filled because of NASCAR’s charter system.
Daytona Clash: Johnson triggered a wreck that wiped out nearly the entire field and zipped to the lead to win the rain-shortened exhibition.
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.
Paul Menard led 51 laps and controlled the race interrupted multiple times for rain. With more rain looming, Johnson dipped low and tried to side-draft Menard as they fought for the lead. Johnson then turned Menard and started a chain-reaction accident.
“I looked in the mirror and there were a lot of cars caught up in it,” Johnson said.
Mark Long is an Associated Press writer.
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