Tuesday’s pair of 50-minute NASCAR Cup Series practice sessions were all about the Ford’s. The blue ovals went 1-2-3-4-5 in session No. 1 and the one bettered that in sweeping the entire top 10 in the second 50 minute session at the Daytona International Speedway after. Despite that output, most still had the bowties circled as the favorites to land the pole for Sunday’s 64th Annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN).
Rightfully so too, especially the ones out of the Hendrick Motorsports camp. Four of the final six qualifiers in the opening round of two round qualifying under the lights on Wednesday from the World Center of Racing all belonged to the HMS fleet.
They’d end up 1-2-3-4. But, they still had to beat six other cars in the second round to land their 15th career Daytona 500 pole.
Aric Almirola gave them the biggest threat in going 180.527 mph. Chase Elliott was next up and had nothing for him in going 180.314 mph in his No. 9 Chevrolet. With Almirola breaking up the Hendrick party, could he really pose a threat of becoming just the third driver since 2006 to win the Daytona 500 pole and not be a part of the Chevy camp?
Those aspirations didn’t last long.
Alex Bowman quickly went to the top of the board with a lap of 181.046 mph in his No. 48 Chevrolet. Could he hold off the final two qualifiers of the session which also happened to be his teammates Kyle Larson and William Byron?
Larson, bettered him at 181.159 mph in his No. 5 Chevrolet. Now, Bowman’s four year streak of Daytona 500 front row’s was threatened. Could Byron best 181.046?
He didn’t. Byron, the 2019 pole winner went .085 mph slower at 180.850 mph which was good enough for third allowing Bowman to continue the record streak to five straight years now.
“It’s unbelievable,” Bowman said of the record. “It just says so much about Hendrick Motorsports and these guys. It’s cool to have the record but I feel like Greg Ives and the race team should get the credit. The driver doesn’t do much.”
“Hopefully we can figure out how to win it,” Bowman added with a smile.
That also allowed Larson to earn his first ever Daytona 500 front row starting spot and 11th career Busch Pole Award moving him in a tie with Sterling Marlin and Jamie McMurray for 64th all-time. He becomes the 44th driver to even win the pole for the annual Daytona 500.
“It’s really neat,” Larson said. “I mean anytime you are really proud of your team to get a pole here ‘cause this is the littlest it has to do with us drivers, qualifying at superspeedways.
“Everybody’s who’s had a part in touching these vehicles, whether it be on the computer, engineering or just hands-on. It’s really neat, just awesome the speed in our Hendricks.com Chevy. Hopefully this is the beginning of a really good season.
“Almost feels like my proudest pole,” he continued, “because you’re proud of everybody who had an impact in doing it.”
It’s also the eighth time HMS has swept the front row for the Great American Race too including three of which occurring in the last four years now and half occurring since 2017.
The problem is, can they turn this into a better fortune on Sunday?
HMS has won seven of the last eight Daytona 500 poles. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. with JTG Daugherty Racing is the lone exception with winning the pole in 2020. Jeff Gordon started the streak in 2015. Chase Elliott won the pole in 2016 and again in 2017 followed by Alex Bowman in 2018 and 2021 and William Byron in 2019.
They’ve not won NASCAR’s version of their Super Bowl in that time frame. Their last Daytona victory came in 2014, a year prior to this streak beginning.
The finishing positions of the HMS pole winners since this streak began in 2015?
33rd, 37th, 14th, 17th, 21st and 35th respectively. The second place starters when they’ve started there?
5th, 37th, 11th, 24th and 26th respectively.
Will this year be different?
“I would much rather win on Sunday, personally,” Elliott said during Media Day activities prior to qualifying on Wednesday. “I think anybody on our team would tell you the same. I feel like we’ve always had fast cars down here. Speedway racing has never been overlooked at HMS; and Alan (Gustafson, Crew Chief) does a really good job of massaging and really paying attention to all the details that I feel like it takes to be good here. I feel like that’s shown over the course of my time with him and even going back before me. There’s been a lot of success there. I do think it’s an area where they put a lot of emphasis and put a lot of work into the cars, but we all want to win on Sunday more than anything.
“I don’t think you have to qualify well to be really good on Sunday or even to have a shot to win.”
Elliott, says that he feels like it’s easy to kind of overlook the speedways, just because there’s so few of them but he thinks that across the garage, that probably does happen some amongst some of the other teams.
In saying that, HMS spends a lot of time on this because of the value to being on the front row here at Daytona for exposure.
“But I think for us, it’s been a great opportunity to give our sponsors some great exposure and to me, that’s probably the biggest piece of value of qualifying well here,” he continued. “For NAPA, they’ve had the chance twice now to be on the front page of the paper down here and kind of be the headline leading into the Daytona 500, which I think has value and I don’t see how they couldn’t see that as value, too. So our team does a good job of putting themselves in a position where our partners can take advantage of the start of our year.”
Also, the last time the defending Cup champion won the Daytona 500 pole? 2008 by Jimmie Johnson. This is only the fifth time that’s happened. On top of that, only five reigning Cup champions have won the Daytona 500 the next season. The last being in 2000 from Dale Jarrett. Only he and Jeff Gordon (1999) have done so in the last 43 years. Can Larson be the fourth?
Villeneuve, Gragson Qualify Their Ways In
The other big story of qualifying is who among the six open cars would qualify their ways into the show on Wednesday night. The open qualifiers are usually some of the better stories of the weekend and boy are the two who locked themselves in on Wednesday fitting the bill.
See, the qualifying format itself doesn’t change this year as we’ll have 42 drivers going for 40 spots into Sunday’s field with 38 of them knowing they have a guaranteed spot once the two rounds of qualifying were done on Wednesday night. All 36 chartered teams have a spot into Sunday’s race while among the six open cars, the top two speeds among them also get in since if they don’t race their ways in on Thursday night, they could always fall back on their speed.
Kaz Grala (The Money Team), Noah Gragson (Beard Motorsports), Greg Biffle (NY Racing Team), Jacques Villeneuve (Team Hezeberg) and Timmy Hill as well as JJ Yeley (MBM Motorsports) entered the night vying for those final four spots into the Daytona 500.
Two of these six would make the show on speed during qualifying. That also means the other four drivers will go to bed Wednesday night not knowing if they’ll be in the race Sunday or not.
In practice on Tuesday, Biffle (188.178 mph) led the way among those six in the first session with Gragson (188.088 mph), Hill (182.919 mph), Yeley (181.984 mph), Villeneuve (180.469 mph) and Grala (179.258 mph) coming in behind him respectively. They were P17, P18, P27, P34, P40 and P41 respectively.
In the second session, it was Grala going from worst to first among the open cars in being P22 overall at 182.667 mph. Gragson (181.583 mph), Biffle (179.939 mph), Hill (178.175 mph), Villeneuve (178.042 mph) and Yeley (175.733 mph) were after in being P32, P36, P40, P41 and P42 respectively.
It was Gragson and Villeneuve.
Gragson, will make his first ever Cup Series start as he was 33rd fastest among 42 cars in qualifying. Villeneuve was 36th to take the second spot.
You have a driver making his rookie start and a team making the field in their first ever race in Cup. You also have a driver who won the 1995 Indianapolis 500 and 1997 F1 World Championship sharing the field with a driver that was born in 1998 as the top open qualifiers on Wednesday.
Yes, Villeneuve won the F1 title a full year before Gragson was even born.
“Just to make the show is incredible,” Villeneuve said, adding, “To be able to make such a big race at such a high level is amazing. When I’m in a race car I don’t realize I’m 50 years old, which is good. As long as it carries on like this, I can’t imagine myself stopping racing.”
This will mark Villeneuve’s fifth career NASCAR Cup Series start and first ever in stock car racing’s crown jewel. The last time he raced in the series was 2013 when he recorded a 41st-place finish in Sonoma, Calif. His best previous series finish was 21st – at Talladega, Ala. in his first career NASCAR Cup Series start.
Gragson’s showing in the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet was equally as dramatic. His team owner Linda Beard – along with her children – is fielding the family-owned team in honor of her late husband Mark. It is only planning on running the superspeedway races and Gragson’s work Wednesday marks the team’s fifth start in the Daytona 500.
“It’s really emotional being able to make the race after not making it last year,” Gragson said, adding, “Last year not making the race, makes this year that much more special. … I really hope to make the Beard family proud this weekend.”
Judging by the smile and emotion she showed on pit road following the qualifying session, Gragson indeed made her proud.
“People that don’t race have no idea how much this means. .. when you are team like us, we love it,” Linda Beard said. “To do this, means so much to us, not only emotionally but just the thrill of it.”
Grala, just missed that second spot by only .084 seconds. Biffle, was next in being .006 seconds behind Grala. The two slowest speeds in qualifying went to the MBM cars who also missed out on the race last year too.
If Gragson or Villeneuve race their ways in tomorrow night, then Grala gets in via his speed. If both race their ways in, then Grala and Biffle fall in on speed.
The MBM cars have no other path but to race their ways in.
Trackhouse Racing The Sleepers Of The Bunch
Daniel Suarez was quick in qualifying for the Busch Light Clash in the Coliseum. That speed out of Trackhouse rolled over to Daytona. In the opening round, both Suarez and his new teammate Ross Chastain held onto spots in the top five for most of the way. In fact, until the HMS camp steamrolled the field, Chastain was quickest overall.
The second round was a repeat of the first, but Trackhouse can hang their hats in putting both cars into the final round. They were seventh (Chastain) and ninth (Suarez) respectively.
Speeds Way Down
We wondered at the conclusion of practice on Tuesday if the practice speeds would truly be as slow as we were witnessing. Speeds in the draft were only in the 192 mph range for which was only 1 mph quicker than last year’s pole. The times out of the draft would struggle to get out of the 180s.
Well, we found out in qualifying, most would struggle to not only get out of the 180 mph bracket, they’d struggle to actually get into it.
Larson’s pole speed of 181.159 mph is the slowest pole speed for the Great American Race since Curtis Turner’s of 180.831 mph back in 1967. Yes, this is the slowest pole speed in 55 years.
AJ Foyt went 182.744 mph in 1971. Bill Elliott was 183.565 mph in 2001. Those were the only other two instances that the pole speeds dipped below 185 mph in this 55 year span.
In fact, this is the 10th slowest pole speed ever. That’s saying something when you debut a new Next Gen car that the speeds have gone way back. Granted, you don’t need to have high speeds to put on a good show, but it’s noteworthy.
The streak of 10 straight years of the pole speed for the Daytona 500 being at or above the 190 mph bracket has been broken. In fact, 11 of the last 12 pole speeds prior to this year’s Speedweeks were over 190 mph at that.
Jeff Gordon went 201.293 mph in 2015 for the only time 1987 that the pole speed broke the 200 mph barrier. Last year was just the second time in the last decade that the pole speed failed to hit 194 mph. Chase Elliott (192.872 mph) in 2017 was the other.
Alex Bowman went 191.261 mph a year ago. That was over 3 mph slower than what Ricky Stenhouse went 194.582 mph a year prior. William Byron went 194.305 mph in the final year of the restrictor plate in 2019. Alex Bowman was at 195.644 mph a year prior to that in 2018.
Prior to 2010 though, the pole speeds didn’t get out of the 180’s for nine straight years but none were as slow as this.
From 2015 until now, the pole speed has dropped 20 mph.