Hendrick Motorsports celebrated a day of success this past Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
William Byron kicked off things to start the day by winning the pole for the Daytona 500. The 21-year-old driver earned his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pole by turning a lap of 194.305 mph. He will lead the field to green in Sunday’s 61st running of the Daytona 500.
“I thought we were going to be somewhere in the hunt,” Byron said. “I was excited to get down here and see what we had. It’s really cool.”
The run capped the first weekend Byron and veteran crew chief Chad Knaus worked together. Knaus, who won seven Cup titles with Jimmie Johnson, was moved to the Hendrick No. 24 team this year and Byron promptly went out to win the pole for the biggest race of the year.
“That’s a pretty amazing feat, I feel,” Knaus said. “I think it’s huge. We’ve had a lot of late nights, a lot of long hours. The last time I came here with a new driver, we sat on the pole. This is really special for me.”
Byron was the fifth straight Hendrick driver to win the pole for “The Great American Race” and led the organization to a sweep of the top four qualifying speeds. Last year’s pole winner Alex Bowman will start outside the front row while Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott were third and fourth on the speed charts.
“To have them on top of each other means the organization did a heck of a job,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “This is the deal to sit on the pole at Daytona.”
Once qualifying ended the first unofficial race of the season took the green flag with the Advance Auto Parts Clash. However, the event turned out to be a disjointed affair stopped by rain three different times thanks to the wet weather that engulfed the area Sunday afternoon.
Mother Nature intervened to end the race 16 laps from its schedule completion when Johnson was declared the winner after 59 laps. But it created an early season controversy coming in the aftermath of Johnson making contact with leader Paul Menard, who had led a record 51 laps, to trigger a multi-car accident.
“It was really just a racing thing,” Johnson said. “I was going down into Turn 1 and it was looking darker and darker. I saw my move and I had to take it.
“I knew the rain was coming, so I was trying to set-up my move and make my run on the No. 21 car. I had it kind of set-up down the backstretch a few laps prior to that and then my opportunity came along, I made that move to the inside and then we kind of got together.”
While Menard was credited with a 13th-place finish, Johnson went on to celebrate in Victory Lane with his new crew chief Kevin Meendering, who took over calling the shots of the No. 48 team after Knaus moved to Byron’s team.
“We couldn’t ask for a better way to start the year,” Meendering said. “As far as the last couple days, we kind of got a warm up last week when we tested in Vegas, so that was big for our communication and helped us tremendously.
“I felt like the last couple days have been really smooth. Cars drove well, communication has been well. We’ve made we had a great qualifying effort. Wish we could have got the pole, but nonetheless, it was a great effort by our team, and everything has been smooth.”