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 were 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, his second in four years here. The problem was, that was the highlight of his Speedweeks. It went all down hill from there.
Bowman, had a vibration during his Duel and he finished four laps down. He then was collected in the Lap 13 melee on Sunday.
“It looks like (Aric Almirola) kind of got turned sideways there and I was the guy that got ran into. Bummer – I hate it for Ally. Obviously, we had a really fast Camaro. The Chevrolet’s were working good together; hopefully a Chevy still ends up in Victory Lane. Hats off to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports; they built some really fast race cars. Hate that superspeedway racing works out that way sometimes, but that’s just part of the game.”
His teammate William Byron had the best “race car” among them. He qualified second but the too was his highlight.
Byron looked like THE favorite for Sunday’s race while dominating the second Duel on Thursday night. But, instead of backing out in the end like he should have, he was caught up in a crash and would now have to give up his second starting spot and bring out the backup car.
He too was collected in that Lap 13 crash and had to limp home the rest of the way.
“It was a long day but I’m proud of my guys for being able to fix the car as well as they did so we could finish the race,” said Byron. “Those spots we picked up were important. It would have been nice to pick up a few more, but that’s just how things go. We’ll regroup and focus on next week’s race at the road course.”
Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson had relatively quiet Speedweeks in coming home second and 10th respectively. Neither really had a car capable of winning though.
“I felt like we had a fast car. We weren’t as good as I thought we were on Thursday,” the defending series champion Elliott said. “I felt like we did a really good job executing today. Staying out of trouble – that’s not something I’ve done a very good job of here in this race, so I’m glad we could at least finish this one and have something to build on for when we come back and try to do better.”
This was Elliotts first top 10 finish in six Daytona 500 starts. It’s also his second straight runner up at Daytona too though as he was second in last August’s ‘400.
For Larson, he overcame a slight crash with Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr on Lap 111 to finish 10th in his debut with HMS
“All-in-all a good day,” said Larson. “I thought we were in an OK spot there at the end to get a top-five, if not, maybe a win if things worked out down the backstretch and through three and four. They all kind of started crashing in front of me. I almost made it through; I think I barely clipped (Brad Keselowski) and then kind of slid all the way through three and four. Thought I might save it, couldn’t save it and started spinning. Lost some spots, but it was still a top-10. … We finished top-10 in the Duel; got some points there. We were top-10 in both stages, so not a bad day for us. Would have liked to have been a little bit better, but anytime you can see the checkered flag, somewhat, at Daytona is always a good day. We’ll come back here next week and have some fun on the Road Course.”