Can Hendrick Motorsports finally turn Daytona qualifying success into win in Great American Race?

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Unfortunately, Hendrick Motorsports has seen this script before. On Wednesday night, they dominated on qualifying day for the upcoming Daytona 500….again

It was the eighth time HMS has swept the front row for the annual season opening race, three of which occurring in the last four years now and half of them occurring since 2017.

They’ve truly 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 to go along with seven poles in the last eight years.

The thing is, they’ve not won NASCAR’s version of their Super Bowl in that time frame either. Their last Daytona victory came in 2014, a year prior to this streak beginning.

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 seven years.

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?

Well, last year was supposed to be different. Last year was supposed to be the time that Hendrick Motorsports flexed their muscles for the entire Daytona Speedweeks. They said all the right things at least.

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 the year prior, they knew that the speed would be there for qualifying.

They decided to spend extra time between the 2020 Daytona 500 and last 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 oval.

“We definitely focused a lot on qualifying,” said crew chief Greg Ives last Speedweeks. Securing the front row is a big deal.

“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.”

Bowman even said the right things last year too.

“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.”

Bowman, starts second again alongside his teammate Kyle Larson who’s never had a top five finish in 29 career superspeedway starts.

With the past result of front row qualifiers for the ‘500 and how neither of these two have had much success at Daytona, does that cause a reason for concern?

Chase Elliott doesn’t think so. He finished second last year and says that while the speed in qualifying is nice, his main focus is on the race itself.

“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.”

The Ford’s have looked awfully tough in practice and race mode (Duels) so far. Chevy’s were good in qualifying. Which wins out on Sunday?

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