By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
The front row for next Sunday’s 60th running of the Daytona 500 is set.
For the fourth straight year, a driver from the Hendrick Motorsports stable will start the Great American Race from the pole. This go around it was Alex Bowman’s turn, taking the No. 88 Chevrolet to the top of the board with a fast lap of 46.002 seconds, 195.644 mph. The pole is the second of the 24-year old’s career.
After serving as the simulator driver for Hendrick over the past two years, as well as expertly driving in relief for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. when he was injured in 2016, Bowman is now the full-time driver for the No. 88 team, taking over the seat when Earnhardt retired at the end of the 2017 season.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” said Bowman of his pole run. “Our Nationwide Camaro ZL1 has been great since we unloaded. All the guys back at the chassis shop, body shop, and the Hendrick engine shop have been top-notch. They’ve all worked so hard. And we knew we were going for the pole; that’s what we’re here to do.
“I thought we were at a little disadvantage letting the car cool down as long as we did since we went pretty early in the first round. I was a little nervous for that second round. But it took off well off pit road and I did everything I could do, but it really comes down to the crew and all the guys back at the shop, whether it’s the aero group, the engine shop, the chassis shop. Everybody works so hard at these speedway cars, especially the 500. It just means the world to have Nationwide support and to be able to put it on the pole.
“I think it’s still a little surreal. It’s a dream come true to get to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. I never thought it would have happened after the path my career took. I’m so thankful to be able to do this. I’m very blessed to be able to call driving a race car my job, and now to get to drive what I think is the best race car in the business, it’s a dream come true.”
Joining Bowman on the front row will be 2016 Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who also scored his best qualifying effort at Daytona with a lap of 46.132 seconds, 195.092 mph.
“It’s a testament to all of the hard work at TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and all the work they put in to give us great engines and technology,” said Hamlin. “Really, everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing’s fab shop to give us a race car that’s obviously very fast. This car obviously we geared a lot towards drafting yesterday so I’m very optimistic that we can have a good Duel even though we’re locked in to the front row.
“I literally am so ecstatic. It’s just so out of the blue because obviously I thought that today was going to be a tough day qualifying. We focused so much on race trim yesterday. We stuck in a pack and I think we did one real mock run which wasn’t really even a mock run and we were so far off that we just switched and made sure our car was going to handle real good on Thursday and obviously next Sunday. This car is ready to race. It’s handling well and we’re looking forward to Thursday. Now, obviously to the 500 being on the front row.”
With the front row set, the focus now turns to Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels at Daytona, which will set the remaining 38 starting spots for Sunday’s race. Since there are only 40 cars entered, there will be no cars in danger of not making the race as a result of their finish in the Duels.