His first day behind the wheel came during practice Saturday. “It's the best driving Camaro I've ever driven,” Stenhouse quipped. Stenhouse turned a fast lap at 194.582 mph to claim the pole, edging Alex Bowman for the top spot. Bowman reached 194.363 mph around the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway to lock down a front-row spot for the third consecutive year. Bowman finished 17th and 11th, respectively, in the last two openers.
“As a race car driver, there's not much you can do to make them go faster,” Bowman said. “But you can sure screw them up, so at least I didn't do that.” Only the top two spots were determined in single-car qualifying. The starting order for the rest of the 40-car field will be set by a pair of qualifying races Thursday at Daytona.
Even so, the Hendrick Motorsports entries clearly have speed: Stenhouse's engines are built by Hendrick, and Hendrick drivers Bowman, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson were second through fourth on the speed chart.
Defending race winner Denny Hamlin was fifth fastest. Winning the pole means little, if anything, at NASCAR's premier race. No pole winner has gone on to win "the Great American Race” since Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett in 2000.
But for Stenhouse, the accomplishment meant everything. He was surprisingly dumped by Roush Fenway Racing in October, long after the two-time Xfinity Series champion thought he was good for another year with the only NASCAR team for which he's driven. The team had a chance to bring back former developmental driver Chris Buescher and gave him Stenhouse's seat in the No. 17 Ford.
Stenhouse, coincidentally, replaced Buescher at JTG and brought crew chief Brian Pattie with him. “I think there's a handful of us that feel like we have something to prove,” Stenhouse said. “I feel like I can still get the job done behind the wheel and win races like we did in the Xfinity Series. ... That was a huge move for me going over there, bringing people that I'm familiar with that have always been in my corner. I think I'd have been lost not having them there.”
There was an opportunity in Sunday qualifying for two teams that don't hold charters to lock up spots in the starting grid. Justin Haley and Brendan Gaughan, the youngest and oldest drivers on the Daytona 500 entry list, landed those.
Haley was the surprise winner of last July's rain-shortened race at Daytona, getting the victory for Spire Motorsports during a lengthy weather delay. It was his third and final Cup Series start in 2019.
“We definitely have a car fastest enough to win this race under green-flag conditions," said the 20-year-old Haley, who is now driving for Kaulig Racing. The start-up team doesn't have a backup car on hand and expects to be really cautious during its qualifying race.
“It was pretty crucial for us, obviously," Haley said. "I didn’t think I was going to be that nervous. But there were a little bit of nerves even though I have a couple of Cup starts. This is still the Daytona 500, something I’ve always dreamed about.”
The 44-year-old Gaughan plans to make four starts this year — all at superspeedways — before retiring. He has one top-five finish in 62 career Cup starts, at Talladega in 2004. “I never knew when the last one was going to be," Gaughan said. "I know when this one is. We made it, we’re here and I’m going to have a bitchin’ time.”
Daniel Suarez, booted by Stewart-Haas Racing the weekend of last year's season finale, landed a ride with a non-chartered team and will have to race his way into the 500 after failing to qualify on speed.
“We have to race and we have to race hard,” said Suarez, whose Gaunt Brothers Racing team was admittedly shocked by its relatively slow speed in practice and qualifying. "We have a lot of challenges. I know what I can do. I have to go out there Thursday and get it done."
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