DAYTONA BEACH: Chase Elliott had only one job for Sunday’s (Monday in Manila) pole qualifying for the Daytona 500: Don’t mess it up.
As the replacement to newly-retired Jeff Gordon, the son of 1988 series champion Bill Elliott simply carried on the rich tradition set by the No. 24 team by running a perfect lap around Daytona International Speedway to become the youngest pole-winner for the most prestigious stock-car race of the year.
“As far as the game plan today, it was just try to hit my shift points, not hit the apron, try to get off pit road and get that launch coming to the green flag were the main objectives today,” the 20 year-old driver said. “Fortunately, all that stuff went smooth. I just tried not to do anything dumb to mess up.”
Elliott, who ran a single lap 196.314 miles per hour (314.10 kilometers per hour), will join second-fastest Matt Kenseth (196.036 mph or 313.66 kph)) on the front row of next Sunday’s (Monday in Manila) Daytona 500.
“Yeah, I mean, obviously everybody says it, but qualifying here is truly a team effort,” Kenseth said. “From the aero guys to everybody at [Toyota Racing Development] making the power, Jason [Ratcliff, crew chief] and the group for massaging that thing, they did a great job.”
Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto were the two non-charter drivers to lock themselves into the season-opening race on speed, leaving six drivers to fight for the final two spots.
Other than the front row, the rest of the starting line-up will be determined by the results of two 150-mile (240-kilometer) Can-Am Duels qualifying races.
Earnhardt Jr. was third-fastest in time trials on Sunday, followed by Kyle Busch in fourth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in fifth, Jimmie Johnson in sixth, Blaney in seventh, Austin Dillon in eighth, Carl Edwards in ninth and Denny Hamlin in 10th.
Seven of the top 10 speeds came from two race teams — Elliott, Earnhardt and Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports; Kenseth and Busch, Edwards and Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Not a surprise
Most believed that Elliott’s success shouldn’t have been a surprise considering what he inherited from Gordon and rest of the Hendrick organization.
Gordon won two 500 poles, including last year, and he won the race three times.
As an organization, Hendrick now has won the 500 pole 10 times and the season-opening race eight times.
“Daytona 500 qualifying day is such an opportunity for the teams to really, I feel like, show what they’ve done in the off season, the kind of work ethic they have, the amount of hours, the massaging they put in these race cars to find those extra hundredths and thousandths of a second that are so crucial on qualifying day,” Elliott said.
Elliott’s pole also extended what’s become a curious tradition attention-turning storylines at Daytona.
Four years ago, Danica Patrick won the pole in her first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series.
A year later, Austin Dillon won in the return of the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet, 13 years after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
And last year, Gordon won in his final 500 after announcing his retirement.
Elliott was using the same car Gordon drove in 2015.
“This is the same car he had a lot of success with last year on qualifying, had a lot of success in the race, too, were really fast both of those days. But definitely didn’t want to mess anything up. Like you said, it’s pretty straightforward, I think, from the driving side,” he added.