Entering a season with so many new and unknown variables, one thing stayed constant: Hendrick Motorsports qualified on the front row for the Daytona 500.
Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson won the pole on Wednesday (Feb. 16) to claim a front row starting spot for the first time in the Great American Race. Meanwhile, his HMS teammate Alex Bowman qualified second, marking the fifth consecutive year he’ll start on the Daytona 500’s front row.
In fact, all four HMS cars qualified inside the top five on Wednesday, with William Byron taking third and Chase Elliott fifth. Aric Almirola‘s Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was the only car capable of breaking up the HMS parade at the top of the board, qualifying fourth.
Winning the Daytona 500 pole is nothing new for HMS. The organization has now accomplished the feat seven of the past eight years. The lone time it didn’t during that span was in 2020 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. captured the top spot driving for JTG Daugherty Racing, using a Hendrick engine to do so.
But for all the speed HMS has showed at Daytona International Speedway and all the success the organization has enjoyed across the Cup tour in recent memory (including the past two Cup titles), Hendrick hasn’t won the Daytona 500 once during that span.
2014, oddly enough one year before the streak of poles started, was the last time an HMS entry won the Daytona 500. NBC hadn’t even made its return to broadcast the series yet, as its analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte worked together to put the No. 88 in victory lane on that super late night in Florida.
Eight years doesn’t feel like that long of a drought. It’s been 11 years since Trevor Bayne won, and I wouldn’t say Wood Brothers Racing is experiencing a Daytona 500 drought. Even seven years winless for Team Penske doesn’t feel like long. But eight years is a long time for the most successful team in the garage, which has a rich Daytona 500 history and has turned out the fastest laps during said drought.
After all, Hendrick won The Great American Race in just its third attempt, taking the 1986 edition with Geoff Bodine. The team since went on to win eight Daytona 500s, second all time only to Petty Enterprises’ nine.
The current Daytona 500 drought is HMS’ longest since the organization also went eight years winless in the race following Darrell Waltrip’s 1989 victory.
When Jeff Gordon ended that drought in 1997, winning his first of three Daytona 500s, he was two years removed from his first title and was fresh off a close championship loss to HMS teammate Terry Labonte. Sounds similar to how Elliott won the 2020 title and lost last year’s to Larson. On top of that, Gordon had a 10-win season in 1996, just like Larson did last year.
1997 was the last time HMS entered a season without a Daytona 500 winning driver on its roster until last year following Jimmie Johnson‘s NASCAR retirement. That 1997 lineup of Gordon, Labonte and Ricky Craven went on to finish 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 that year. Could we see history repeat itself with this year’s squad? This year’s Hendrick cars certainly have the speed to do one better and finish 1-2-3-4.
Based on what we’ve seen and heard so far about the Next Gen cars (this was written before the Duels), this weekend could be HMS’ best shot at the top-four sweep in quite a while. It seems like the draft won’t help as much and the race will end up with mini packs like there were back in the 1990s on superspeedways. It won’t have the entire field stacked three-wide on top of each other like has been the case at superspeedways in recent years. If it’s like this, then engines will matter a lot more than with the Gen 6 car, which will play right into HMS’ hand. The Big One will probably prevent Hendrick from an opportunity at the sweep, but a win could be on the horizon.
Rick Hendrick said last November that this current lineup of drivers and crew chiefs is the “best we’ve ever had.” That’s coming from a car owner who has fielded cars for Hall of Famers Waltrip, Gordon, Labonte and Earnhardt and future Hall of Famer Johnson — he had three of them at the same time. He’s had Ray Evernham, Chad Knaus, Jeff Hammond and Harry Hyde as his crew chiefs. With all the ultra talented lineups Mr. H has had over the years, is this one really the best?
Well, last year, this current HMS lineup was one win away from winning half of the races in the season. These four drivers will certainly win more races down the road, and more championships wouldn’t be a shock either.
But to truly be considered among the best in NASCAR, you’ve got to win the Daytona 500. Michael Waltrip, Ward Burton and Jamie McMurray all only won a handful of times in their respective Cup careers, but they’ll forever be remembered for winning Harley J. Earl trophies. Michael McDowell and Bayne only have one career Cup win each, but they cemented their place in NASCAR lore by winning the Daytona 500.
If this current lineup is truly to be considered the best the team has ever fielded, then they’ve got to win some Daytona 500s. And this could be the year that it starts.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.