RELATED: Alex Bowman wins Daytona 500 pole
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Winning the Daytona 500 pole position is becoming old news for Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick. The venerable leader and NASCAR Hall of Fame member watched his team make it four straight in Sunday’s qualifying, an even dozen overall.
So it’s not a groundbreaking event for the powerhouse organization, but there still was something different about this celebration on pit road. Hendrick was the first one to embrace 24-year-old Alex Bowman, a relative newcomer to the driver roster, as he exited the car after collecting his second career premier series pole.
A quick scan of the scoring pylon’s top 10 revealed a familiar face in Hendrick mainstay Jimmie Johnson, a solid third in qualifying. But there was 20-year-old William Byron, the fifth-fastest qualifier and a cherub-faced HMS rookie who indicated he’d be shifting his focus to completing a homework assignment for his spring course load at Liberty University. And then Chase Elliott, logging the 10th-fastest lap as he enters just his third full season at age 22.
There are full-scale sea changes afoot at Hendrick Motorsports these days, key among them being the four individuals wheeling the Chevrolets that basked in the Daytona qualifying sunshine for yet another February. For the man whose name is on the building, the effect has been rejuvenating.
“I’m just having so much fun with these young guys,” Hendrick said. “It’s just fun to see them excited and the team’s excited. We don’t know what to expect. We’re just going to go have fun.”
The fun began Sunday with Bowman earning the No. 1 starting spot for the 60th Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM), his first start as the full-time replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet. He’s the oldest of the three twenty-somethings in the driver mix with Johnson, the seasoned 42-year-old who has won a record-tying seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships.
But the driver composition isn’t the least of the changes. Hendrick and the rest of the Chevy organizations have had to adapt quickly to reskinning their competition fleet for the Camaro ZL1 model. And after a 2017 season that left the 68-year-old team owner with a sour taste, Hendrick reshaped the way the four teams operate.
Scrapped was the two-stable system — Nos. 48 and 88 in one camp, the Nos. 24 and then-5 in the other — that served the organization well for many years. In its place is a restructured competition department that emphasizes a one-team concept.
It’s early in its inception, but Hendrick is already enjoying the resulting cohesion.
“In all of my years in this sport and my company, we have never worked this close together, and it’s something I’ve been wanting to see,” Hendrick said. “… I think last year we kind of peaked and we knew there was change coming, so we just said, ‘OK, let’s change it all.’ Let’s just take all the experience we have, Jeff Andrews (VP of competition) done an unbelievable job, (team president) Marshall Carlson. And again, I give the crew chiefs credit because they designed this themselves in a room with a white board, and we started putting it together, and it was a change.
“People don’t like change, but it’s happened pretty … everybody is buying in. I’ve been with the crew out here in the garage area, and there’s an intertwined deal that hadn’t been happening.”
The feeling of unity trickled down to the crew chief of the moment, Greg Ives, whose reserved expressions and poker-faced tendency to keep his strategies under wraps have earned the nickname, “The Riddler” from his young driver. Ives indicated he’s invested in the new Hendrick philosophy of unification; the part about the spirit of fun from the young, ambitious drivers hasn’t quite taken root.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Ives said with a grin. “These kids are fearless. They just stand on the gas and go. The fun part is when you’re running well and you’re fast. It’s never fun to not be, and that’s our goal this year. We want to show that we’re a team as Hendrick Motorsports. That’s what I’m calling our team. We’re not individuals, the 88. We’re a whole Hendrick group that’s looking for great things this year.”
Sunday’s showing was more about single-car speed and bragging rights among the teams’ speedway programs. But the start was auspicious for an organization seeking its 13th championship, sitting just one points-paying win away from No. 250.
“To have four cars in the top 10, that’s hard to do,” Hendrick said. “Now we’ve just got to finish it.”