DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Last Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports extended its streak to five consecutive seasons with a Daytona 500 pole.
Thursday night, the organization will look to keep another streak alive. Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one of the Duels at Daytona International Speedway in each of the last four years, winning five of a possible eight in that span.
With a lot on the line – starting spots in the Daytona 500 and even points for the top-10 finishers – there’s certainly plenty of motivation for the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers to find Victory Lane for what would be a fifth consecutive year.
“I think the Duels is really our best opportunity to make real adjustments for the (Daytona 500),” said Jimmie Johnson, who will start on the front row in the first Duel. “Granted, it’s only half the field, but the intensity is up. We can’t recreate that intensity in practice. The one downside of the Duels is it’s at night. Chances are, if everything goes off on time, we’re racing during the day in the 500. So, the track might not be the same, but the intensity and the energy within the draft is closest in the Duels, so we need to take advantage of that.”
Johnson and teammate Chase Elliott will be among the competitors racing to cement their starting positions for “The Great American Race.”
For William Byron and Alex Bowman – already locked into the front row for the Daytona 500 – the Duels are just as much about protecting those starting spots by keeping their Chevrolets safe.
“It’s really hard to have a great plan for the Duels,” said Bowman, who will start the second Duel on the pole. “Obviously starting position is really important and don’t want to lose that on Sunday, but you also want to know where you car’s going to run, how your car’s going to run and how it’s going to handle. So, we’ve got to be aggressive and really see what our car’s going to do.”
Byron, the pole-sitter for Sunday’s race, agreed that he’ll look to capitalize on the opportunity to learn about his car in the Duels – at least early on. He’ll start the first Duel on the pole.
“We’re going to try to race,” he said. “We’re going to try to learn a little bit from the beginning of the race – if we get shuffled back, I’m sure we’ll kind of play it safe, but we’ve got to air on the side of learning and try to be on offense.”
The driver of the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 said he’ll “play it by ear” depending on whether the race is calm or becomes more “reckless.”
Elliott, who will join Byron the front row to start the opening Duel, doesn’t believe things will get too crazy Thursday evening.
“I think with everything we’ve torn up so far this week, I hate to break it to everybody, but I think they’re going to be pretty boring from the standpoint of I think people want to finish,” he said. “I’m certainly in the boat of I would like to race this car on Sunday, and I think everybody else does, too. It’s tough, because you want to race, you want to improve your starting position and ultimately improve your pit box selection, but tough thing to do. Being too aggressive is probably not worth the penalty of having to go to a backup car.”
Elliott echoed his teammate’s sentiments that the Duels come down to balancing two objectives – keeping the car safe and getting as prepared as possible for this Sunday’s season-opener.
“We'll try our best not to crash,” he said. “Certainly want to put ourselves in aggressive positions and race like we always have to see if you can learn something for the 500.”