The race doesn’t always go to the swiftest nor the fight to the strongest. But that’s the smart way to bet.
Kyle Larson and the other Hendrick Motorsports drivers needed just 10 minutes of track time on Wednesday to confirm they remain the fastest outfit in the NASCAR Cup Series, even with the cutover to the Next Gen car.
The tests of strength will begin Thursday with the Bluegreen Vacations Duels and Sunday in the Daytona 500 as fans and competitors get to see how well those Hendrick cars fare in traffic on the superspeedway.
If the races go as well as qualifying did, then this could be a difficult season for the competition.
Kyle Larson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates dominated Daytona 500 qualifying
The three-month offseason serves as a natural reset button in the NASCAR Cup Series. It’s 13 weeks during which the also-rans can focus on moving closer to the front of the pack. In addition, the Next Gen car was supposed to be the great equalizer since everyone would be starting with the same, brand-new specs.
So, what happened during qualifying for the Daytona 500? Racing fans witnessed a continuation of the 2021 season in which the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers made it to the playoffs, Chase Elliott got to the Championship 4, and Kyle Larson won the title.
Only, the performance was more dominating this time. The four Hendrick cars took the top four spots in the first phase of qualifying. After the top 10 returned for a final stab at the pole for Sunday’s race, they still all landed in the top five.
Larson led the way at 181.158 mph, followed by teammates Alex Bowman at 181.046 and William Byron at 180.85. Aric Almirola broke up the Hendrick monopoly, but Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.
Larson, who won 10 points events and the All-Star Race last season, brushed aside credit for logging the night’s top speed.
“It’s really neat,” Larson said, according to NASCAR.com. “I mean, anytime you are really proud of your team to get a pole here because this is the littlest it has to do with us drivers, qualifying at superspeedways.
“Everybody who had a part in touching these vehicles (gets credit), whether it be on the computer, engineering or just hands-on. It’s really neat, just awesome the speed in our HendrickCars.com Chevy.”
Capturing Sunday’s pole is a significant achievement for Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson will be driving in the Daytona 500 for the ninth time, but this is his first instance of starting higher than eighth. That gives every indication that he’s about to better his career-best seventh-place finishes from 2016 and ’19.
Still, Larson might not even be the odds-on favorite to be the top Hendrick finisher. Though he’s still looking for his first top-10 finish, Alex Bowman qualified for the front row for the fifth straight year, setting a Daytona 500 record.
“It’s cool to have the record, but I feel like (crew chief) Greg Ives and the race team should get the credit,” Bowman said. “The driver doesn’t do much.”
If it really isn’t the drivers, then there must be someone high up in the Hendrick Motorsports shop who called the right shots for all four calls. Again, one of the benefits of the Next Gen car was that every team started with the same equipment and knowledge base. Chevy teams fared better than their Toyota and Ford counterparts, and the Hendrick cars are out to an early advantage.
What will the Daytona 500 tell us about the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series?
Hendrick Motorsports became the fourth team in NASCAR Cup history to capture the top four places in a race when Alex Bowman led a sweep last May at Dover. The most recent previous occurrence was 15 years earlier.
Despite Wednesday’s outstanding night, plenty could go wrong in Sunday’s Daytona 500. First, single-car qualifying is different than running in a pack. Second, even a dominant afternoon can end abruptly on a superspeedway courtesy of “The Big One.”
Even if Kyle Larson and his teammates pull off a big day, we’ll still need to see a larger body of work to judge. The 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval and mile-long Phoenix track will tell us more next month, but fast qualifying there by Larson et al could make for a long season for everyone else.