DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Last weekend, Hendrick Motorsports extended its streak to four consecutive seasons with a Daytona 500 pole.
Thursday night, the organization will look to increase another streak. Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one of the Duels at Daytona International Speedway in each of the last three years, winning four of a possible six in that span.
And with points on the line in addition to Daytona 500 starting positions, there’s plenty of motivation for the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers to find Victory Lane for what would be a fourth consecutive year.
Jimmie Johnson, who will start on the outside pole in the first Duel race of the evening, said he’ll work hard to maintain a strong starting spot for the Daytona 500 after qualifying third.
“We want the best starting position we can have in the 500,” he said. “So, we’ll be out there racing and hopefully the car drives well. We learned a lot after The Clash, and unfortunately the way the rule are, we can’t work on our cars from Daytona 500 qualifying to the start of the (Duels). So, we have all this knowledge and these adjustments we want to make, but we can’t touch our cars. So, that first pit stop, I think, will be very busy for all the teams on pit road.”
He expects with so many cars set up to excel during qualifying, it might create an interesting start to Thursday night’s races. But he’s ready for the challenge.
“I'd have to assume the top 10, top 15 cars that are sitting in impound right now are trimmed out pretty dang good,” he said. “Thursday is going to be exciting for a lot of us. I know I'm ready for that excitement.”
William Byron – who will start third in the first Duel – might not have many laps under his belt on the track at Daytona International Speedway in the NASCAR Cup Series, but he’s found plenty of success there in his racing career.
In his championship-winning 2017 Xfinity season, the driver led 29 laps and scored a victory in the July 1 Xfinity race at Daytona after starting third. His average finish at Daytona in the Xfinity Series is fifth.
And he hopes he’ll be able to use that experience – along with his practice and qualifying laps last weekend – as he keeps building toward his first Daytona 500.
“I think the best thing for me to do is kind of do what I did here in the Xfinity car and keep in mind what the Cup car does differently, and hopefully combine all that together,” he said.
When asked what a “reasonable expectation” would be for him in the Duels, he didn’t hesitate.
“To finish first,” he said. “But that’s going to take a lot. I’ve got to be aggressive. I've got to be smart. I feel like the best thing for me to do is go out there and be aggressive, and you can't really hide at these kind of racetracks, so you have to go out there and make sure you're making moves and see who will work with you.
“I'll probably figure out most of that in the Duel and be able to lead that into Sunday.”
Only three drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history have won a Duel on the first attempt, the most recent of which was Jeff Gordon in 1993. Byron could join that elusive list if he were to find Victory Lane Thursday night.
Meanwhile, Chase Elliott is one of a record-tying seven different Hendrick Motorsports drivers to have won a Duel. Those seven drivers have amassed 14 Duel wins, which is good for second all-time behind only Richard Childress Racing’s 15 wins.
This year, for the first time in his full-time NASCAR Cup Series career, Elliott did not win the Daytona 500 pole. So, for the first time in his Cup career, he’ll enter the Duels without his starting position already secured.
He qualified 10th and will be the lone Hendrick Motorsports driver in the second Duel, starting fifth. As for securing his Daytona 500 starting position, he said “everything is OK” if he makes sure his No. 9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 performs well in the Duels.
“It’s a great honor to be on the pole and a great achievement for our team and the efforts they put in throughout the offseason, but there is a lot of opportunity to showcase their efforts throughout the season – first being Thursday and, most importantly, next Sunday.”
For this year’s pole-sitter, Alex Bowman, protecting his primary Daytona 500 car is not just important – it’s the No. 1 priority.
With his starting spot at the front of the field already cemented, he wants to be sure to get through Thursday night’s event in one piece.
“Obviously, the Duel pays points, but I also really like my primary car, so it’s a tough one,” Bowman said. “I think, for us, it’s more important to keep the car safe.”
He noted that he still plans to test out the car’s ability in the draft and remain aggressive where it makes sense, but he’ll still have one main goal in mind.
“Obviously you don’t want to hurt that car and you want to start out front in the 500,” he reiterated. “My job is to stay out of trouble in the Duel and not put the race car in a compromising position.”
Johnson perhaps best summed up the mindset for Thursday night’s Duels for all four drivers – in just five words.
“We'll be smart,” he said, “for sure.”