By AMANDA VINCENT
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie Chase Elliott will begin his stint behind the wheel of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet formerly driven by the now-retired Jeff Gordon from the pole in the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway on Feb. 21. Elliott posted a 45.845-second/196.31 mph lap during the second of two rounds of qualifying Sunday to claim his first Sprint Cup pole.
“This is a very, very cool day,” Elliott said. “I don’t know that this opportunity has sunk in yet, much less sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500, so this is very cool. I think the big thing is just the team and the Daytona 500 qualifying is about the team guys and the effort they put into these cars, and it’s nothing special I did. It’s really what kind of work they did this off-season to make it happen. Jeff knows all about that, and I just wanted to give a big thanks to NAPA Auto Parts and all of our partners at HMS on this No. 24 car. This is very special and a great way to start the season.”
With his pole run on Sunday, Elliott, age 20, became the youngest pole winner in Daytona 500 history. He also put the No. 24 on the pole for the second-straight year, following up Gordon’s pole-earning lap from a year ago.
“I’m just so thankful for this opportunity,” Elliott said. “Opportunities like this don’t come twice, and I certainly want to make the most of this. It’s very special and a very cool way to start our 2016 season with HMS and the No. 24 car, and like I said, I’m just very honored and blessed to be with the group of guys that we have. I think it’s a special group. This entire team did such a good job on this car during this off-season.”
Aside from Elliott, Matt Kenseth is the only driver who already knows where he’ll be starting the Daytona 500. Kenseth was the second-fastest in round two to claim the other front-row starting spot. The other 44 cars entered will learn their exact fate Thursday night with the running of two Can-Am Duel races.
The Daytona 500 starting grid will consist of 40 cars, a reduction from the previous 43. Thirty-six of those spots will go to teams with charters. Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto do already know, though, that they’ll be two of the four drivers in one of the remaining four spots, as NASCAR will award two of the “open” positions to the two fastest drivers with non-chartered teams from Sunday qualifying. Blaney and DiBenedetto were the fastest two drivers on non-chartered teams. Blaney was the only one of the eight drivers with charterless teams to advance to the second round of qualifying, or round of 12, on Sunday.
“It is nice to be locked into the race,” Blaney said. “The biggest relief for us is to know you 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 more than we would have instead of playing it conservative if we weren’t locked in. It is nice to have such a fast car and be locked into the race. It is a load off our shoulders, for sure. I think anytime you can make it to the last round, you feel good about the speed of your race car. I think our speed is pretty good.”
Forty-four cars lined up to make qualifying attempts on Sunday, but only 43 of them got onto the track to post a lap in the first round. Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota was moved out of line and pushed to the garage to fix an issue with a roof flap. The five-minute clock ran out before the problem was remedied.
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