DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Story by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR photo —
For the fourth year in a row, the storyline entering the Daytona 500 wrote itself during Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coors Light Pole Qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway.
Following in the footsteps of Danica Patrick’s full-time Sprint Cup debut (2013), the return of the No. 3 by Austin Dillon (2014) and Jeff Gordon’s retirement tour a year ago; Dawsonville, Ga. young gun Chase Elliott made his first-ever qualifying attempt at ‘The World Center of Racing’ one for the history books.
Elliott stepped into Gordon’s famed No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and took it straight to the top of the scoring pylon in the second and final round of knockout-style time trials. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender’s lap of 45.845 seconds (196.314 mph) was enough to fend off the challenges of Matt Kenseth and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. — securing his first-career Sprint Cup pole and becoming the youngest-ever Daytona 500 polesitter (20 years, two months and 17 days) in the process.
“This is a very, very cool day,” Elliott smiled after climbing from his car. “I don’t know that the opportunity [to drive the No. 24 and race at Daytona] has even really sunk in yet — much less sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500.”
The younger Elliott joins Gordon (the 2015 and two-time former polesitter at the 500) as one of six drivers to have won a 500 pole for Hendrick Motorsports, securing team owner Rick Hendrick’s 10th all-time top qualifying effort in NASCAR’s season-opening race by day’s end.
“Qualifying [for this race] is so much about the team guys and the effort they put into preparing these cars — it’s nothing special I did. We’re very fortunate to have the people at Hendrick Motorsports that we do, and I feel blessed to have them working with me.”
“What a great way to start the season, though. Opportunities like this one don’t come twice, so I certainly want to make the most of this one.”
Joining Elliott on the front row of next Sunday’s 58th annual Daytona 500 (Feb. 21 at 1 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN & SiriusXM) will be another driver making his first-ever front row start in ‘The Great American Race.’
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth posted the second-fastest lap in the final round (45.910/196.036) as the second-to-last car to go out for a timed run. The 2003 champion and Wisconsin native will have the best view of his Daytona 500 career at the start of this year’s race as his goes for his third career event win (2009, 2012).
“Today was the first time I’ve ever been nervous qualifying at Daytona,” Kenseth admitted. “I was saying to myself all the way around the track, ‘Don’t mess up that lap, because you want to be on the front row.’”
“Yesterday [in the Unlimited] didn’t turn out how we wanted it to, but we’ve got a lot of speed in our JGR Toyotas, so I’m looking forward to [next] Sunday and going after a third Daytona 500 win.”
2011 pole-winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the fastest man in round one, but dropped to third (45.993/195.682) on his final run around the 2.5-mile high banks.
The Toyota of defending series champion Kyle Busch and the Ford of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. completed the ‘Fast Five.’
In order; Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Carl Edwards, Sprint Unlimited winner Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and defending 500 champion Joey Logano all made the final round — qualifying in positions six through 12, respectively.
Casey Mears was the first car to miss the cut for the pole round of qualifying, holding on through a majority of the session but being bumped out by Logano, who was the last car to qualify in round one.
Mears’ No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet and its lap of 46.332 seconds (194.250 mph) was one one-thousandth (0.001) of a second shy of making the top 12 and dueling for the pole. His lap places him sixth on the starting grid for Can-Am Duel No. 2 on Thursday night.
“Yeah, that was close,” Mears said with a wry smile after the end of round one. “Anything 13-related isn’t a bad number for us, though. We’ll take that.”
“I’m real proud of the guys. Everyone in the NASCAR group [at Germain Racing] puts a lot of work into this race and showing speed. [Daytona] is a great opportunity to show what this team’s made of, and to be in contention here … shows that they’re all doing a really good job at the shop. We built our own body in-house this year — yes, we had a lot of information from RCR — but to get that close is a testament to how hard these guys work. I’m really looking forward to the 500.”
Other notables who failed to make the second round cut included 2008 500 winner Ryan Newman (15th); 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski (19th); 2010 winner Jamie McMurray (23rd); BK Racing young gun Matt DiBenedetto (26th) and 2011 winner Trevor Bayne (34th).
Blaney and DiBenedetto were the fastest two ‘Open’ class teams in qualifying, however; and as such are guaranteed to start the Daytona 500 at least on their speed. The duo can improve their starting positions by racing their way in through Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels.
“It is nice to be locked into the race,” said Blaney. “The biggest relief for us is to know [we] are locked in and are good to be able to race in the 500. That kind of lets us go race on Thursday a little bit … at least more than we would have, instead of playing it conservative if we hadn’t been locked in.”
“It is a load off our shoulders for sure [going into the rest of Speedweeks].”
Martin Truex Jr. was the only one of the 44 drivers who was not able to post a qualifying time, after a roof flap issue for his No. 78 Bass Pro Shops/Furniture Row Racing Toyota took him out of line and back to the garage area.
Truex will start last in Can-Am Duel No. 2 on Thursday. For more on that story, click here.
The Sprint Cup Series is back on track Wednesday for Daytona 500 practice (5 p.m. ET, FS1) in advance of Thursday’s 150-mile qualifying races under the lights (7 p.m. ET, FOX).
RESULTS: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; Coors Light Pole Qualifying; Daytona International Speedway; Feb. 14, 2016
Green indicates locked-in ‘Open’ team. Red indicates non-locked-in ‘Open’ team.
- Chase Elliott (Locked in, front row)
- Matt Kenseth (Locked in, front row)
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Kyle Busch
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
- Jimmie Johnson
- Ryan Blaney (locked in, speed)
- Austin Dillon
- Carl Edwards
- Denny Hamlin
- Kurt Busch
- Joey Logano
- Casey Mears
- Kasey Kahne
- Ryan Newman
- Kevin Harvick
- Paul Menard
- Ty Dillon
- Brad Keselowski
- Aric Almirola
- Brian Vickers
- Greg Biffle
- Jamie McMurray
- Brian Scott
- Kyle Larson
- Matt DiBenedetto (locked in, speed)
- Michael Mcdowell
- Regan Smith
- Michael Waltrip
- Chris Buescher
- Danica Patrick
- Bobby Labonte
- AJ Allmendinger
- Trevor Bayne
- Michael Annett
- Clint Bowyer
- Landon Cassill
- Robert Richardson Jr.
- Cole Whitt
- David Gilliland
- David Ragan
- Josh Wise
- Reed Sorenson
- Martin Truex Jr. (NT)
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 22-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for both the United Sprint Car Series and the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
Email Jacob at: [email protected]
Email Race Chaser Online: [email protected]
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