By David Morgan, NASCAR Writer
Ahead of next Sunday’s Daytona 500, the 44 hopeful entrants into the Great American Race took to Daytona’s high banks to set the front row and the lineups for Thursday’s CanAm Duel qualifying races.
After last season’s attempt at group qualifying, which turned into an unmitigated disaster, NASCAR made the decision to move back to single car runs for qualifying on Sunday. The new format would consist of two rounds in which all 44 cars would post a time in the first round and then the fastest 12 would make a second run to go for the two front row positions up for grabs.
One the first round was complete; the fastest 12 drivers would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, and Joey Logano.
In order of the slowest to fastest, those 12 drivers all made their second qualifying run, with Elliott and Kenseth asserting themselves as the best of the best with laps of 45.845 seconds (196.314 mph) and 45.910 seconds (196.036 mph), respectively, to score the two front row starting positions.
Elliott’s pole makes him the youngest Daytona 500 pole sitter, while Kenseth scores his first front row start for the Daytona 500.
“This is a very, very cool day. I don’t know if this opportunity has sunk in yet, much less sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500, so this is very, very cool. You know, I think the biggest thing is just the team and Daytona 500 qualifying is about the team guys and the effort the put into these cars. It was nothing special I did, it was really just what kind of work they did this offseason to make it happen. Jeff (Gordon) knows all about that and I want to give a big thanks to NAPA Auto Parts and all of our partners at HMS on this No. 24 car. This is very, very special and a great way to start the season,” said Elliott.
“Obviously this is a team effort and not really a driver thing. Although it’s the first time I’ve been nervous qualifying at Daytona. I’m like ‘don’t mess up that lap. You want to be on the front row.’ Just a big thanks to everybody at JGR. The aero department is obviously a huge part of this. All of those guys do a great job. Everybody at Toyota and TRD making these Camrys so fast, and Dollar General and DeWalt. We’ve got a great race team. Yesterday didn’t turn out how we wanted it to, but we had a lot of speed in all of our Toyotas, so I’m looking forward to Sunday,” said Kenseth.
While Elliott and Kenseth won’t have to worry where they will be starting for the Daytona 500, the remaining 42 drivers will all fight for the remaining 38 positions in the field.
The 36 charter teams will all have a guaranteed spot in the field, with the remaining four spots going to non-charter teams. Two of those spots were locked in as a result of qualifying speed on Sunday, as Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto secured those two spots, leaving the other six non-charter teams to have to race their way in on Thursday.
The six drivers that will have to race their way in are Robert Richardson Jr., Josh Wise, David Gilliland, Reed Sorenson, Michael McDowell, and Cole Whitt.
Sunday’s qualifying session may have been focused on the front row, but one of the big storylines aside from the two front row starters was that Martin Truex, Jr. and his No. 78 team were not able to post a time in qualifying. NASCAR took issue with the height of their roof flap, causing them to have to go back to the garage to repair it and therefore missing their shot at posting a qualifying lap. Truex was given a DNS (Did Not Start) for qualifying and will have to start his respective duel race from the back to see where he will start for the Daytona 500.
“They didn’t like the way it was landing when it went down. I don’t know – it was that way the whole way down pit road. I’m not sure what the problem was, it could have been easily fixed but either way they decided to put it on the five minute clock when we were down there at the end and I don’t know why we had to run it back here because there was no way we were gonna get back here and get back out in time. But, whatever, we will roll on and see what they decide to do. Too bad. I thought we had a really good car and good speed in it so it would’ve been nice to see what we could’ve run at least but either way we’ll move on and hopefully have a good rest of Speed Weeks,” said Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn.
Image: Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images