DAYTONA BEACH, Fla – “It’s no secret, we didn’t have the year we wanted last year,” said team owner Rick Hendrick after his cars qualified 1-2-3-4 for the Daytona 500 on Sunday. While only the two top are guaranteed for their starting spots for next Sunday’s Great American Race (2:30 p.m. ET/FOX/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), it’s definitely a great day of momentum.
But, can they continue it on?
Last year was far from a typical Hendrick Motorsports season. They started off strong in earning the Daytona 500 pole with Alex Bowman. Chase Elliott won his Duel to give them two of the top four starting spots. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. So much so, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus split up. Knaus, is the crew chief for William Byron while Kevin Meendering is on top of Johnson’s pit box now.
Johnson, enters 2019 on the heels of his two worst statistical seasons ever. He hasn’t won a points paying race in 59 races. He has a combined six top five finishes over the last two years. He went from four in 2017 down to two in 2018. He had 11 top 10s in each of the last two years too. On top of that, he only led 217 laps in 2017. He led just 40 last year.
Despite a Daytona 500 pole last February, Bowman had only three top five finishes and 11 top 10’s. He led just 71 laps.
Byron, had no top five finishes.
Elliott, was the lone bright spot in ending a 99 race winless streak and reaching victory lane three times – all in the final 15 races. Can he continue that onto 2019 and get some help?
Hendrick hopes so. For an organization with 252 premiere series wins and 11 championships, the time is now.
That’s why qualifying 1-2-3-4 and not having anyone within a full mph to their slowest car is attention getting.
Starting on the front row for the Daytona 500 though doesn’t guarantee solid results in the race itself either. The last time a pole winner won the Daytona 500 was back in 2000 with Dale Jarrett. Furthermore, it’s only happened twice since 1988.
HMS now has five straight Daytona 500 poles in general. The prior four results – 33rd, 37th, 14th and 17th respectively.
The last time a pole winner even finished in the top five was 2002 (Bill Elliott). They’ve failed to score a top 10 finish in 14 of the last 17 years. So, that doesn’t bode well for Byron.
The average finishing position for a pole winner has fallen to 16.15.
The average finishing position for the second starting spot is 16.07. That doesn’t bode well for Bowman who finished 17th last year from the pole himself.
Just six times in the last 23 years has the second place starter finished in the top five.
That’s why HMS has a tall task ahead of them this week. Being strong in restrictor plate qualifying is one thing, being good in the draft is another. They’ve failed to be strong in the draft the last three years and after the Clash and the Duels, they have some work to still do.