Can Hendrick Motorsports finally turn qualifying pace to Daytona 500 race winning speed? Bowman, Larson talk about those prospects

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Qualifying trim is one thing. Race pace is purely another. That’s the thing that’s puzzled the Hendrick Motorsports camp when they’ve come down to the Daytona Speedweeks for much of the last decade. They know how to qualify here. They just struggle to finish.

I’ve written about it in each of the last three years now on if Hendrick Motorsports could finally turn around those top starting spots and make them into some Daytona 500 success. Unfortunately, they still haven’t.

Can that change in Sunday’s 65th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)?

A year ago, William Byron and Alex Bowman were collected in the Lap 62 crash on the backstretch. Byron, would finish 38th while Bowman limped home 24th, four laps down.

Then, both Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott were each part of that Lap 190 crash with Larson finishing 32nd and Elliott continuing on to coming home 10th.

The thing is, Hendrick Motorsports has seen this script before. Last year, they dominated on qualifying day for the upcoming Daytona 500….again.

They did so again on Wednesday night on a time that they say they weren’t even trying to.

It was the ninth time that HMS has swept the front row for the annual season opening race, four of which occurring in the last five years now and half of them even 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 eight poles in the last nine 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 eight years.

The finishing positions of the HMS pole winners since this streak began in 2015?

5th, 37th, 11th, 24th, 26th and 24th respectively.

Not ideal.

The second place starters when they’ve started there?

33rd, 37th, 14th, 17th, 21st, 35th and 32nd respectively.

Why will this year be any different?

Well, last year was supposed to be different. Same with the year before. 2021 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.

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 the 2021 edition 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 during that year’s 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 that 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.”

Chase Elliott 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.”

At one point Hendrick Motorsports was the top team on restrictor plate tracks in general. At Talladega, they had 6 wins in an 8 race span. They’ve won just 4 of the 30 Talladega races since with Chase Elliott’s spring race win in 2019 and Fall race win a year ago being their only trips to victory lane there since this Fall of 2015.

For Daytona, Hendrick Motorsports is tied with the Wood Brothers for most wins there in the NASCAR Cup Series. Each have 15. Both have also won those 15 races with 7 different drivers. However, HMS’ once dominance prowess has since cooled at the World Center of Racing too. They won 11 races between 1995 and 2015. In fact, 7 of those 11 occurred from July 2004 and July 2015. They’ve won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 race 6 times.

Since 2016 there, they have just 1 win. What’s bizarre is, it’s not like they’ve not shown up down here without speed. They’ve arguably had the fastest cars off the truck. It’s just that they’ve not had race day speed to correlate with race day handling.

With this pace again, does the pressure keep mounting as the years go by that they don’t turn this qualifying success into a win?

“Yeah, for sure,” Bowman admitted on Wednesday night. “Every year. Man, now it’s time to finish, like make it to the end. Last year I think I sat on the back straightaway for four laps before they could figure out how to get me to pit road with four flat tires.

“Yeah, it’s such a hard race to finish. We’ve crashed early, we’ve crashed in the middle, we’ve crashed late. Obviously I don’t have the answer to that. I haven’t figured out how to finish it yet.

“I know we have a really fast race car and a great group of guys that are capable of doing great. But, man, it’s been tough. We want to finish this race and finish it well.”

Larson agreed.

” I don’t know, I mean, you always study before every race,” Larson said of studying tape between now and Sunday and trying to figure out how to be better here on race day. “I don’t know. We do it every week. We go over every race. Same as for Daytona and Talladega both, we go and try to probably dive deeper than normal. More of the same tomorrow.

“But I would like to kind of see how the good guys set themselves up throughout a run to be up towards the front or wherever they need to be to miss wrecks and stuff.

“It’s just a difficult style of racing that, I don’t know, I just haven’t had the best of time in my career. I used to always say it’s bad luck, but I don’t necessarily feel that way any more.

“Yeah, just try to, as you do with every racetrack, just get better.”

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