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Byron, Knaus provide fresh, new look to Hendrick’s pole-day dominance

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — For all of the tried-and-true feel to Sunday’s Daytona 500 time trials, plenty of new seeped through in the latest chapter of Hendrick Motorsports’ reign over qualifying day.

The familiar tune was the customary grunt from Rick Hendrick’s four-car fleet, which swept the first four spots on the speed chart for the organization’s fifth consecutive Daytona 500 pole. It’s the fourth time in the last five years that a Chevrolet with No. 24 will lead the field to the green in next Sunday’s Great American Race (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The new: 21-year-old William Byron, who became the latest first-time Busch Pole winner and who kicked off his first race with an energized Chad Knaus — his new crew chief — with a flourish. Hendrick’s familiar grin was front and center on pit road after qualifying, but this time it was directed toward a new driver-crew chief combination.

“Man, I used to come down here and just want to make the race,” Hendrick said. “To come down here and win five of these things in a row, it’s unbelievable.”

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The news that Knaus would move on from longtime driver Jimmie Johnson to work with Byron in 2019 reverberated through the NASCAR garage late last season. Sunday, it rattled the upper reaches of the scoring pylon to lead the team’s four-car qualifying monopoly — an early reward for the major shift in personnel.

“Chad’s built a team around William, and that’s what Chad is so good at, putting a group together,” Hendrick told NASCAR.com. “And William wanted structure, and boy, he’s going to get it with Chad. Chad’s assembled a good group and boy, they’ve been out practicing in the parking lot, setting up the rigs, doing everything you do at the track. I’m just happy for Chad. When you split up him and Jimmie after all the success, you know Jimmie’s going to run well and Chad’s going to build this young man into a champion, so real excited about that.”

Becoming a champion might be ambitious for a driver starting just his second Monster Energy Series season, but if the No. 24 team’s current edition follows the “Refuse to Lose” blueprint of its mid-90s beginnings, Hendrick might be onto something.

Jeff Gordon, the No. 24 group’s first driver, climbed that ladder of goals with Knaus contributing to the effort as a crewmember. Now a veteran crew chief with multiple titles of his own, Knaus has another young driver to help mold, a rejuvenating project — which “has put some wind in the sails,” he says — as he enters his 19th season as a full-time big-league crew chief.

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Knaus noted that the last time he arrived for Daytona’s Speedweeks with a new driver, he also secured the 500’s coveted pole position. That highlight came with a fresh-faced rookie in Johnson, who powered the No. 48 to the first starting spot for the 2002 season opener.

Nearly two decades later, it’s a familiar feeling that’s new all over again.

“To be able to come down here, my first race with the 24 car and William and Axalta on the car, man, it’s awesome,” Knaus said. “I always wanted to be crew chief on that 24 car and I didn’t want to blow it, so to be able to come down and do what we did, it’s a dream come true.”