Alex Bowman swapped car numbers for the 2021 season — from 88 to 48 — but he certainly has retained his Daytona magic, earning the pole position for Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), giving the Hendrick Motorsports driver a record fourth consecutive front-row start in the NASCAR Cup Series season opener.
Bowman, 27, went out late in the qualifying order (38th of 44 drivers) Wednesday night — the first nighttime pole qualifying session in race history — but his Chevrolet handily set the pace with a lap of 191.261 mph (47.056 seconds), taking the top spot from Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron by more than a quarter-second.
“It was fast,” Byron said, smiling, about Bowman’s pole-winning lap.
The Hendrick teammates also started alongside one another in 2019, when Byron edged Bowman for the pole position. Bowman earned his first Daytona 500 pole in 2018 and started second last year. Hendrick Motorsports now has 14 Daytona 500 pole positions.
“It doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with me, right?” Bowman said on pit road after qualifying. “It’s a testament to these guys and everybody back in the shop at Hendrick Motorsports. They work so hard on these superspeedway cars. They are beautiful when they get to the race track. Our Ally Camaro has been really fast since we unloaded and they focused a lot on trying to get the pole for the Daytona 500.
“It means a lot to us and we were able to achieve that.”
And, he added, “It’s more about the people that make it happen. I floored it, but I’m pretty sure everyone else did, too. I’m just appreciative my race car is fast.”
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola was third-fastest in the No. 10 Ford, followed on the speed chart by Bubba Wallace, who earned rave reviews in his debut driving the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota, which is co-owned by three-time and defending Daytona 500 winning driver Denny Hamlin and Basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. Wallace’s lap was good enough for the top spot, only to be taken by Byron three cars later.
Wallace was fastest in an hourlong practice Wednesday afternoon — his first official laps with the new organization — and he was clearly feeling optimistic about the week. He finished runner-up in his very first Daytona 500 in 2018.
“Everything’s shaping up to be a great ending for us, we just have to get through it,” Wallace said. “It’s kind of the same feeling I had in 2018, my first 500. The speed was there, we qualified decent and had a really good Duel and finished second in the 500.
“I think the way things are going, we just have to keep it going, keep the positive momentum going. Everything’s kind of going well in the car. I’m confident. Still getting things worked out but all in all it comes pretty natural when you have a great team behind you.”
Wallace said he got a “very positive” text from Jordan after qualifying and said the basketball superstar will arrive in Daytona on Thursday in time for the Bluegreen Vacation Duels (7 p.m. ET; FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) that will ultimately set the starting lineup for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Hamlin was 12th-fastest in qualifying. The two joked about Wallace being faster.
“I’m aware,” Hamlin said with a smile, adding, “It’s actually a pretty solid qualifying effort certainly for our FedEx team, just barely out of the top 10 there, so that’s a good starting spot for us and we’re excited about it.
“Obviously that was a great run by the 23 team. They just barely missed it there by a tenth or so to get that locked-in spot (on the front row). But now they get to go out there and race and get the experience they need to get a good finish on Sunday.”
Speed-wise, last year’s polesitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. proved fast again — fifth-quickest in the JTG Daugherty Chevrolet. Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford), Christopher Bell (No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota), Ryan Preece (No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet), 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon (No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet) and Daniel Suarez (No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet) rounded out the top 10.
Preece and 13th-place qualifier David Ragan were quickest among Open car teams needing to qualify based upon time. The rest of the Open car team drivers — Austin Cindric, Kaz Grala, Timmy Hill, Noah Gragson, Ty Dillon and Garrett Smithley — will have to battle it out in the Duels with the highest finisher among them in each Duel earning a spot in the Daytona 500.
Holly Cain writes for the NASCAR Wire Service.