How Sweep It Is: Hendrick Motorsports Takes Front Row for Daytona 500
There's a saying that "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
It appears that maxim holds true with NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying at Daytona International Speedway, as Hendrick Motorsports duplicated its front row sweep, a feat accomplished on Sunday afternoon and last year.
One of those constants was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who captured the first Coors Light Pole Award of the season with a top speed of 186.086 miles per hour.
Earnhardt's pole efforts couldn't have come at a better time, especially considering what he and his No. 88 Chevrolet team have endured in recent times.
Coming off a pair of tumultous seasons in which he's placed 25th and 21st in the past few years, his stellar qualifying effort may just be a sign of things to come for the 2004 "Great American Race" winner, especially with the 10th anniversary of his father's passing in this very race.
Regarding the atmosphere and the expected publicity surrounding himself and the No. 88 AMP Energy Chevrolet team, per AP Sports Writer Chris Jenkins' article via Yahoo! Sports, Earnhardt said, "I wouldn't embrace that. I'm here to race...I just want to focus on my job."
It's a huge morale boost for Earnhardt's camp, particularly for the driver himself.
A year ago, Daytona was about the only highlight for the two-time superspeedway winner, as he placed runner-up to Jamie McMurray.
Otherwise, it was another unforgettable campaign for a driver who's expected to win at Hendrick, with Jimmie Johnson carrying the team's Chevrolets to relevancy over the past few years.
Starting alongside the pride of Kannapolis, NC is four-time Cup champion and three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, who's also coming off an "off-year," which saw no wins and a ninth place points finish.
Adorning the new red, black, and silver colors of the AARP's Drive To End Hunger initative on his No. 24 Chevrolet, the 39-year-old racer piloted his car to an outside pole position, securing the only other spot in the field with a speed of 185.966 miles per hour.
Like Earnhardt Jr., Gordon finds himself with a relatively "new" team, with internal changes at Hendrick Motorsports during the offseason resulting in new driver, crew chief, and pit crew combinations.
Working with Gordon is headwrench Alan Gustafson, who helped set-up the car of last year's pole winner Mark Martin. As for Earnhardt, Jr., Gordon's former crew chief, Steve Letarte, led the No. 88 team's efforts to a fast start.
Gordon was elated with the immediate results and gelling with his team, observing how quickly he and his team have been able to get on the same page at Daytona.
"The chemistry among the team and just seeing their attitude and everything, it's been awesome," Gordon said. "It's been all very positive."
While their front row sweep may be one of the most important storylines heading into next Sunday's Daytona 500, perhaps the biggest topic at the famed 2.5-mile superspeedway is the new form of racing at the track.
Unlike in previous years, where competitors have found themselves tightly packed together in two-to-three wide formations throughout a race, a myriad of changes have produced a different brand of racing to the track.
These changes stem from Daytona's new asphalt surface as well as changes to the Car of Tomorrow's body and mechanics, including the new nose configuration as well as the new Goodyear tire compound, which have produced tremendous grip for the drivers behind the wheel of their vehicles.
Well, try this: two car draft formations, with a lead car being pushed by a second car around the track, which makes for an easy opportunity for breakaways.
No longer is the lead car at an advantage at Daytona, as greatly depicted in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout.
Heading to the last lap, race leader Ryan Newman was a sitting duck, with Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, and Jamie McMurray breathing down his neck.
As the four car pack raced towards the tri-oval, Hamlin made a power move to the inside lane, taking Newman by surprise.
Neglecting to protect the bottom, the driver of the No. 39 WIX Filters/Army Chevrolet relgated himself to a runner up spot.
Although Hamlin's move was deemed illegal (as he passed under the "out-of-bounds" double yellow line), Busch was also able to put the spurs to his No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge in first place at the line, squeaking by Newman for the win.
This particular type of racing has drawn mixed reactions from the field of competitors who were accustomed to the New York City-like traffic packs of years' past.
"I prefer the other style better," Earnhardt said. "I prefer having more choices in my destiny, I guess."
Whether or not additional changes to the cars remains to be seen. NASCAR tweaked with the cooling systems of these machines in an effort to breakup the two-car packs.
For the meantime, here's one thing that's certain - no matter the type of racing to be found at Daytona International Speedway, make no mistake:
Hendrick Motorsports' quartet of Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be among the names to watch in "The Great American Race."