If you love numbers, not much has changed since Feb. 2015 as the No. 24 car led the field to green for the 2015 Daytona 500.
That was Jeff Gordon.
This time, it is Chase Elliott aboard the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet as the 2016 Rookie of the Year competitor grabbed the pole at Daytona International Speedway, ripping around the circuit in 45.845 seconds (196.31 mph).
“This is a very, very cool day,” Elliott said. “I don’t know if this opportunity has sunken in yet, much less, sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500.”
Qualifying for what will be the 20-year-old’s first Daytona 500 and sixth Sprint Cup Series start, Elliott becomes the 14th consecutive different pole winner for the 500-mile classic. He is also the third rookie in four years to win the pole for the Great American Race, following in the footsteps of Danica Patrick and Austin Dillon.
“I think the big thing is just the team,” Elliott continued. “Daytona 500 qualifying is about the team guys and the effort they put in to these cars. It’s nothing special I did, it’s really what kind of work they did this offseason to make it happen.”
With no prior restrictor plate experience in Sprint Cup competition, Elliott took notes during Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited.
“I think, from here, I think it started last night paying attention to that Sprint Unlimited,” he said. “Kind of watching to see what went on there, trying to learn a couple things. The Duels, I think, will be a big eye-opener for me to try and learn this Cup side a little bit on the drafting.”
Matt Kenseth was the only other driver to reach the 45-second mark, running just 0.065 seconds behind Elliott and qualifying second. The front-row effort was the first in Kenseth’s Daytona 500 career. The 2012 Daytona 500 winner became the first Toyota driver since Michael Waltrip in 2008 to sit on the front row for the season-opener.
“It is the first time I’ve been nervous qualifying at Daytona,” Kenseth admitted. “I’m like ‘Don’t mess up that lap, you want to be on the front row.’ Just a big thanks to everyone at JGR.”
Unlike last year, Pole Day at Daytona reverted back to single-car runs with the importance of a quick, fine-tuned car at the forefront. The driver focuses on holding a smooth wheel while the teams enjoy their time in the limelight.
“The aero department is obviously a huge part of all this,” Kenseth said. “Everybody at Toyota and TRD making these Camrys so fast.”
With the top 12 advancing to the second and final round for pole, Casey Mears was the driver bumped out after reigning Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano ran a lap 0.001 seconds quicker during the last run.
“I guess if we’re going to be anything, 13th is not a bad number for us,” said Mears, driver of the No. 13 Chevrolet. “I’m real proud of the guys. Obviously, everybody here in the whole NASCAR group puts a lot of work into this, coming to this race and showing speed.”
“[NASCAR] didn’t like the way [the roof flap] landed when it dropped back down,” said Cole Pearn, crew chief of the No. 78. “It was that way the whole way down pit road. I’m not sure what the problem was, it could have been easily fixed. We’ll roll on and see what they decide to do.”
Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto were the two drivers without Charters to lock themselves into the field. The two drivers out-qualified the remaining teams without Charters, which means two starting positions will be on the line come Thursday.
The Sprint Cup Series field now will get set for the Can-Am Duels on Thursday night to officially set the field for the 58th Daytona 500 on Sunday.
Starting fields for the Can-Am Duels:
Can-Am Duel No. 1
1. Chase Elliott
2.Dale Earnhardt Jr.
3.Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Can-Am Duel No. 2
19.Robert Richardson Jr.
22.Martin Truex Jr.
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