Hendrick Motorsports says things will be different this Sunday, did Duels hurt those chances?

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — This year was supposed to be different. This year was supposed to be the time that Hendrick Motorsports flexed their muscles for the entire Daytona Speedweeks. See, HMS has been a force early on during the annual February trip to the World Center of Speed. Since 2013, they’ve won six Duels as well as six poles in the last seven years.

They’ve only won two Daytona 500’s during that span. Both occurring in back-to-back years in 2013 and again in 2014. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove his No. 88 Chevrolet into victory lane following a lengthy rain delay that 2014 night, never in a million years did I not expect HMS to be back over the next six years.

That’s why 2021’s edition of Speedweeks was supposed to be different. They were going to come down here with a vengeance. With a similar package to the one last year, they knew that the speed would be there for qualifying.

They decided to spend extra time between last year’s Daytona 500 and this year’s on working on their “race” cars. Following years of good alone speed but bad handling cars in the draft, they’ve massaged them the best that they could to bring down four really good hot rods to the 2.5-mile ova.

“We definitely focused a lot on qualifying,” said crew chief Greg Ives.

They certainly did. William Byron said it best the other night, “he was fast.” Alex Bowman’s pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN), his second in four years here, does come with a caveat though. The last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole was Dale Jarrett some 21 years ago in 2000. The last pole winner to even nab a top five finish was Bill Elliott back in 2002. The pole winner for the Daytona 500 has failed to score a top 10 finish in 16 of the last 19 years in fact. Their average finishing position?

16.15.

So, why focus on the pole so much then?

“We felt like that going into tomorrow’s race (the Duels) that the track was going to have a lot of grip so we could trim out the car a little bit more than normal,” Ives continued. “And securing that front row starting spot is a big deal.

“I think with the impound qualifying, it’s a decision. It’s a decision whether or not to put your car in race trim and have some type of focus more on how the car is going to be balanced and handle in the draft.

“For the Daytona 500 for us it’s a marquee race that you want to get the pole. There’s obviously a special reason why first and second are locked into the race and don’t have to — I wouldn’t say necessarily worry about the 150s, but you have your starting spot, you understand where your pit stall is going to be, you can kind of perfect and get a calm and understanding of where you have to get in the box, get out, and maybe that tenth of a mile per hour better down pit road is going to help you come out first.”

Bowman, has never started off the front row in four Daytona 500 starts with Hendrick Motorsports. He just also hasn’t turned them into results in the race either.

“Yeah, for me it’s been an interesting couple years driving for HMS in the 500 obviously from the front row every year, have had extremely fast race cars,” Bowman said of no wins despite good starting spots for this race. “It’s like we make it through every crash until that last one. We go all day, we miss crashes that we probably shouldn’t miss, and then a crash that we probably should miss we get caught up in.

“It’s been frustrating to not get a great finish here in the 500. Obviously we’ve had some other superspeedway success, and we want to win this deal. This is the Daytona 500. Everybody wants to win this deal. We’ve just got to get through the whole race. We just haven’t been able to get through the whole race, and it hasn’t ever really been our fault. We’ve always had great driving race cars, fast race cars, led laps, but just got to get to the end. I feel like if we do that we’re going to have a shot at it.

“But yeah, it’s a really hard race to win. So many things have to go right. Your day has to go so well, and it’s hard. It’s tough to do.

“It’s hard to do no matter where you start. I don’t think any of our previous 500 runs have really even been influenced from where we start, so just got to get to the end, and if we do that, I know we’ll have a chance.”

Its not like the second starting spot is that much better. Their average finishing position in the big race? 16th too.

Just six times in the last 25 years has the second place starter came home with a top five finish in the Great American Race.

That’s not good news for William Byron either.

So, while the distinction of being a front row starter for the ‘500 is great an all, it hasn’t translated much into success a week later. Bowman and Byron hope to change that on Sunday. They team said that they’re doing everything right leading up to this point.

They said with their recent experience of starting up front at Daytona, they’re going to spend a concentrated effort to make it work better this time around.

“Yeah, I mean, I think for us, we’ve started up there together before, so I feel like for us, we can rely on that experience, especially being teammates with Alex for the last three years, I guess,” Byron said. “It’s really been comfortable to work with him.

“I feel like that’s the goal, is to stay up there and contend and lead a bunch of laps and control the lanes. That’s our goal first and foremost. But you’ve got to get to the end, as well. And if you get yourself in tough positions, you just have to realize that it’s better to try to rally back at the end of the race and not tear something up. That’s kind of what I’ve learned.

“And it can kind of go in waves as the race goes on. And sometimes you’re up front and sometimes you’re kind of mired in traffic, so you just have to take it how it comes to you.”

Byron, said that there’s definitely more confidence, and some of it comes with just knowing his car and knowing some of the things that you can and can’t do inside of it.

“I feel like the last two races, like you said, Talladega was really close to a win, and Daytona, obviously,” Byron continued. “I feel like we can build on those for sure.”

Despite all this qualifying success, HMS hasn’t won the Daytona 500 since 2014. Byron, said there’s extra emphasis on changing that this weekend.

“I feel like even more so this year there’s a concentrated effort on that and making sure we’re helping each other and we’ve just gotten better and better at that over the year,” he said.

“The dialogue has continued to be open, and I feel like we’re going to continue to try to move that forward and try to get one of us in Victory Lane. It’s definitely our goal this year.“

The problem is, they didn’t do much to help themselves during those Duels on Thursday. Alex Bowman battled a vibration all race long. He finished four laps down. William Byron looked like THE favorite for Sunday’s race while dominating the second Duel, but instead of backing out in the end like he should have, he was caught up in a crash and will now have to give up his second starting spot and bring out the backup car.

Chad Knaus noted that the only way to get practice these day is to get in there and race in the Duels. It’s the only way to see what you got in terms of race trim. You just have to balance to how aggressive that you’re going to be.

It’s always something you weigh when you qualify in the front row, how aggressive do you get in the 150? Do you race hard? Do you not race hard? It’s a balance,” Knaus said on Friday. “But the only way to get these guys practice is to legit race. I think Byron showed a lot of speed, so I think they made the right call.”

Can they make up for the Duels mishaps on Sunday? Byron, has to hope that backup car is as good as the primary because the primary car was a rocketship and Bowman has to hope the figure out the vibration problem.

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