Top 3 storylines for Daytona 500 qualifying

For the second straight year, qualifying to set the front row for the Daytona 500 as well as also the customary starting lineups for the annual Duels at Daytona will be held in primetime. NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway has altered the Speedweeks schedule again for this year’s edition. The changes though actually had nothing to really do in regards to the pandemic as these radical changes were made prior to COVID being around last year.

In turn, qualifying for last and this year’s 64th running of the Daytona 500 was then moved from Sunday to Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN).

Qualifying Format

The qualifying format itself doesn’t change 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 are 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) are vying for those final four spots into the Daytona 500.

Two of these six will 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.

While it’s nothing glamorous in terms of qualifying for the ‘500 with only single car runs and just the front row being set, it’s still big for the teams as this rewards the offseason hardwork back in the North Carolina shops.

The drivers will tell you, qualifying at the Daytona International Speedway doesn’t have much to do about their skillset. It’s all about the teamwork in the offseason and engine department. The only thing the driver can do is screw it up says Alex Bowman.

William Byron says that it’s 90-10 in terms of 90% car and 10% driver for what you can get out of Daytona qualifying.

In terms of what happens for the format, when the last car takes their time, the odd cars (pole, 3rd fastest, 5th fastest, 7th fastest, etc) on the speed chart will start in the first race of Thursday night’s Duels. The’ll line up in order that they qualified in the sense that the quickest car on Wednesday will be on the pole for Duel 1. The third quickest car will start second. The fifth and seventh fastest cars from Wednesday will share Row 2 and so forth.

The even cars on the speed chart will start in that order for the second Duel.

So, who wins the pole?

Credit: DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 10: Pole winner Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, and second place winner William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrate in Victory Lane after qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 10, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Pole Favorites? Watch Out For The Bowties

There’s just a pair of Tuesday practice sessions before we qualify to set the field a day later. Is that enough to accumulate the right amount data from that?

The top speeds on Tuesday were all in the draft, so it’s hard to look at the charts and see who’s the favorite.

The easiest favorite for the pole though will be a manufacturer in Chevrolet. The bowties have won nine straight Daytona 500 poles and 14 of the last 16. They’ve also won 29 total Daytona 500 poles besting Ford by 17 total poles with the blue ovals scoring 12 poles in the Great American Race, the last being in 2012.

Hendrick Motorsports has to be the favorites among the Chevy camp as they’ve won six of the last seven poles and 14 overall. 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.

The only two races since 2006 that a Chevy driver didn’t earn the Daytona 500 pole was in 2007 (David Gilliland) and 2012 (Carl Edwards).

Toyota, has never won a Daytona 500 pole.

How much does this new car change the Chevy pole advantage in Daytona.

A total of 43 different drivers have won the pole for the Daytona 500 with seven of them being active this weekend. Bowman and Elliott each have two poles apiece while Stenhouse Jr., Byron, Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle are the others.

Bowman and Elliott are two of 11 total drivers to have won multiple Daytona 500 pole positions. Only four drivers have won consecutive poles with the last being Elliott (2016, 2017). Can Bowman be the fifth and earn his third career Daytona 500 pole, all coming in the last five years?

The most Daytona 500 poles is four by Bill Elliott (1985-87, 2001), Cale Yarborough (1968, 1970, 1978 and 1984) and Buddy Baker (1969, 1973, 1979 and 1980).

Daytona 500 Front Row Hasn’t Had Much Daytona 500 Race Success

Now, this potential pole though does come with a caveat. The last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole was Dale Jarrett in 2000. The last pole winner to even nab a top five finish was Bill Elliott in 2002. The pole winner for the Daytona 500 has failed to score a top 10 finish in 16 of the last 20 years in fact including seven straight races. Their average finishing position?

16.59. The last four pole winners have failed to even get to 16th in the end with the best result since 2015 being 14th by Elliott in 2017.

Its not like the second starting spot is that much better. Their average finishing position in the big race? 16.27.

Just five times in the last 26 years has the second place starter came home with a top five finish in the Great American Race.

The last outside pole winner to win the Daytona 500?

Dale Jarrett in 1993.

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.

What Will The Speeds Look Like?

I suspect the speeds may not make it out of the 180 mph barrier on Wednesday night. The streak of 10 straight years of the pole speed for the Daytona 500 being at or above the 190 mph bracket is in jeopardy. In fact, 11 of the last 12 pole speeds 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. That’s not happening this year. 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 as I have a feeling that’s where we’re going on Wednesday night.

The top speeds in the pair of practices on Tuesday was only 192 mph. Those were in the draft though. Single car speeds failed to get over 190 mph which I have a feeling we’ll struggle to hit.

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