Hendrick Motorsports and the Daytona 500 Front-Row Curse

Saying that the Hendrick Motorsports camp has a lock on Daytona 500 qualifying is like saying water is wet.

With William Byron scoring his first-career pole for the 2019 edition of the Great American Race, he joins the ranks of other Hendrick notables like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and even Ken Schrader in being the eighth HMS driver (and third in the No. 24) to win a 500 pole.

Yet with 13 poles and 12 outside-pole starts, Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, and Geoff Bodine are the only HMS drivers to win the 500 from the front row (Bodine started second in 1986 and Waltrip started second in 1989 while Gordon won from the pole in 1999).

Schrader was a three-time (’88, ’89, ’90) 500 pole winner, as well as a two-time winner of the Clash at Daytona (’89, ’90). But with a runner-up finish in the ’89 500, Schrader couldn’t seal the deal in the No. 25 Chevrolet, with a sixth-place run in ’88 and a 40th-place run in ’90 sandwiching his ’89 disappointment.

No more HMS drivers started on the front row until Gordon’s 500 win in ’99, then it was Jimmie Johnson on the front row in 2002, winning his first of two 500 poles and four front-row starts overall. His runner-up qualifying efforts in 2005 and 2015 were rewarded with a fifth-place finishes in both instances, but his ’02 and ’08 poles were met with 15th-place and 27th-place finishes, after spinning in both races. Despite all that, the seven-time series champion is a two-time 500 winner.

Despite being a three-time 500 winner and two-time 500 pole sitter, Gordon hasn’t had much 500 luck from the front row. Qualifying second in 2006, the No. 24 crew found themselves in a few scrapes before finishing 26th. Again qualifying second in 2011 and 2013, Gordon’s efforts were met with finishes of 28th and 20th, respectively. His pole run in 2015 was followed up with a dominant showing in the 500, where he led the most laps (87) before being turned around as the field was heading for the finish. He was credited with a 33rd-place finish.

Joining HMS in 2009, Mark Martin’s comeback season started off with a second-place qualifying run in the 500. However, five wins and a runner-up points finish masked a forgettable 16th-place finish in the 500, and not even a pole the next season in the 500 could bare any success: He finished 12th after leading 11 laps.

Earnhardt’s 2011 effort saw him put his No. 88 on the pole to put HMS on the 500 front row for the second-straight year after he qualified second in the 2010 event. But although he finished second in that event, ’11 saw him lead a meager nine laps before crashing and finishing 24th. He returned to the 500 front-row in 2017, but a crash while leading after halfway put the two-time 500 winner in 37th in the final running order.

Chase Elliott has two 500 poles to his credit (’16, ’17) but lacks the finishes to back up his qualifying efforts. His 500 debut in ’16 put him in the lead for three laps after starting first, but an early-race spin put him in 37th after extensive damage was made to the No. 24. In 2017 he led 39 laps but was shuffled out of the running order late in the race, finishing 14th in the final order.

The most recent 500 had HMS driver Alex Bowman on the pole, but a late-race involvement in The Big One left him in 17th even though he led 13 laps early on.

With all of this being said, the argument can be made that HMS has a lock on 500 qualifying, as mentioned before. But with three 500 wins from the front row in 33 years, the argument can also be made that the odds are not in the organization’s favor that they’ll put the No. 24 or the No. 88 in Victory Lane even though come Sunday Byron and Bowman will be leading the field to the green flag.

Regardless, being on the front row for the 500 hasn’t proven that successful for an organization that has eight 500 wins despite the fact. The odds may not be in favor for two of the drivers, but with established drivers like Johnson and Elliott picking up the slack, things are evened out so there may be an HMS Chevy in Victory Lane regardless.

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