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.
Byron, 21, 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 constitute 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,” team owner Rick 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.”
Johnson causes wreck, wins
Jimmie Johnson triggered a wreck that wiped out nearly the entire 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 last season, but a dose of aggression put him 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 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.