By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There were happy teammates and even happier friends in the immediate aftermath of qualifying for the Daytona 500 on Thursday night.
Alex Bowman clinched a front row starting spot for the Great American Race for the sixth consecutive year. It was also his third Daytona 500 pole. He will be joined on front row on Sunday by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson — giving the Chevrolet flagship their third straight front row lockout.
As if those weren’t enough accolades, this was also the eighth time in nine years that Hendrick Motorsports captured the pole.
“It’s a really interesting thing to be a part of because I have so little to do with it, right,” Bowman said. “Like obviously once you get five, man, it would be really cool to have six. Next year I’ll be like, man, it will be really cool to have seven.
“At the same time, it’s way more about my guys and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. Just appreciative for all their hard work, the time and effort, whether it’s the engine shop or all the guys in the car shop. There’s a ton of effort that goes into trying to qualify well here. Most of it’s on their end. So definitely really appreciative.”
Bowman was nearly two tenths quicker in the second round than Larson — 49.53 to a 49.70.
“I don’t know,” Larson said. “I think it’s just because he’s taller, he can push the gas further.”
That was a joke.
Meanwhile, no longer a Hendrick Motorsports driver but instead the owner-driver of Legacy Motor Club, Jimmie Johnson was also ecstatic on Thursday. The two-time Daytona 500 winner and seven-time Cup Series champion locked himself into the field with the fastest time out of all the drivers without charter protections.
He was 23rd while Travis Pastrana was also fast enough, 25th, to lock himself into the Daytona 500 in the 23XI Racing No. 67 entry. Pastrana and Johnson have become close friends over the past decade and the highlight of the session had to be their bearhug on pit row upon locking themselves in.
Then came the family of the late Ken Block, more friends to the Pastranas, who was here to support his effort.
“Ken’s wife Lucy and two of his kids came down,” Pastrana said. “They watched their first NASCAR qualifying. They came out, flew out this morning. They’re flying back tomorrow morning. They just wanted to be here to support me.
“For me, I was pretty emotional at the end of this, just that they came out for me. Everything that I’m able to do right now, the pavement experience, is because Ken Block was able to build a sport around having fun, sliding cars, to allow me to be part of that series, to build Rally the way it is, I’m forever thankful.
“Could not be more thankful and happy that his family’s here. I can’t wait to help do anything that I can to get Leah and his other kids, but she’s a phenomenal driver, I bet she’ll be here racing the 500 at some point. She’s definitely going to be one of the top Rally drivers of all time in the U.S. here.”
And then there was Johnson himself, who didn’t even believe he was fast enough, mostly because he had never run this car anywhere other than a test at Phoenix last month.
He thought he was down a cylinder.
“The experience was way different than I anticipated,” Johnson said. “The ride quality was much rougher. I didn’t know if that was supposed to happen or not.
“Then when I pulled it into fifth gear, which is weird to go to fifth gear, the drag of the vehicle, the rpm dropped really far. I didn’t know that was normal. So, the entire lap I made around, I thought something was potentially wrong with the car. The rpm was really low, didn’t feel very fast. Once I crossed the finish line, I heard we had a good lap.
“It was stressful out there, more stressful than I intended it to be.”
The stress is over, Johnson is in, and now it’s just a matter of determining where he starts on Thursday night in the Duel.
Zane Smith (29th fastest), Austin Hill (32nd), Chandler Smith (41st) and Conor Daly (NA) will be racing for the two final positions during the qualifying races.
But back to Bowman, who is now one of the most decorated superspeedway qualifiers on all time, be it his doing or not. There has to be a bonus of some kind for that, right?
“No, no,” Bowman said. “I get added workload. I don’t get any bonus. Nothing. I get a trophy and three more hours of (media) work tomorrow.”
Besides, Bowman would rather be a race winner than a pole winner by this point.
“Now it’s time to finish, like make it to the end,” Bowman said. “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.”