DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Junior Nation, you have a new standard bearer.
Alex Bowman, the successor to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, couldn't have had a more auspicious start to the next phase of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career-namely, winning the pole position for next Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 (on FOX at 2:30 p.m.).
In his first official competition as the full-time driver of the vaunted No. 88, Bowman sped around 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in 46.002 seconds in the second and final round of Sunday's single-car qualifying, a time that translated to an average speed of 195.644 mph.
Bowman knew from the outset he had a car capable of winning the pole. The pressure was squarely on his shoulders to fulfill the potential of his equipment.
"It was a little nerve-wracking," said Bowman, who won his second career pole in his last three Monster Energy starts, dating back to November 2016 at Phoenix, where he was subbing for an injured Earnhardt. "Our Nationwide Camaro ZL1 has been great since we unloaded.
"All the guys back at the chassis shop, body shop, and the Hendrick engine shop have been top-notch. They've all worked so hard. And we knew we were going for the pole. That's what we're here to do."
Bowman was the 12th driver to take a lap in the first round of qualifying, and his speed of 194.885 mph stood up as fastest of the session. But that also meant Bowman had a long wait as the last to make a run in the final round.
"I thought we were at a little disadvantage, letting the car cool down as long as we did, since we went pretty early in the first round," said Bowman, the 41st different driver to win a Daytona 500 pole. "I was a little nervous for that second round. But it took off well off pit road, and I did everything I could do.
"But it really comes down to the crew and all the guys back at the shop, whether it's the aero group, the engine shop, the chassis shop. Everybody works so hard at these speedway cars, especially (for) the 500. It just means the world to have (sponsor) Nationwide support and to be able to put it on the pole."
Under a format in which the only the two front-row qualifiers are locked into their starting positions for the Great American Race, Bowman topped second-place Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 winner, who covered the distance in 46.132 seconds (195.092 mph).
Though he was one spot short of the pole, Hamlin was elated to secure a front-row starting spot for the first time in his career. Make that elated and surprised.
"This was way out of the blue for us," Hamlin said. "I literally am so ecstatic. It's just so out of the blue, because, obviously, I thought that today was going to be a tough day qualifying. We focused so much on race trim yesterday (in Saturday's practice).
"We stuck in a pack, and I think we did one real mock run which wasn't really even a mock run and we were so far off that we just switched and made sure our car was going to handle real good on Thursday and obviously next Sunday."
Jimmie Johnson was third fastest on Sunday at 194,734 mph, earning the second-place starting position in Thursday night's first Can-Am Duel 150-mile qualifying race, one of the two events that sets the starting order for the Daytona 500.
Kyle Busch (194.704 mph) will start on the outside of the front row in the second Duel after qualifying fourth. Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender William Byron was fifth fastest in time trials, giving Hendrick Motorsports three of the top five cars in the competitive debut of the new Camaro ZL1 race car.
Last season's Monster Energy Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Erik Jones was sixth, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez. Kevin Harvick was eighth quickest in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, as four Chevrolets, four Toyotas and four Fords transferred to the second round of qualifying.
Notes: For her last start in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car, Danica Patrick was 28th fastest in qualifying in the No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet... The Daytona 500 pole was the fourth straight for team owner Rick Hendrick, tying him with Harry Ranier (1979-1982) for most consecutive poles for the Great American Race... Former Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne was 18th fastest in his competitive debut in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet... Darrell "Bubba" Wallace qualified 25th in his first outing as the full-time driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet... In his debut in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, Aric Almirola was 13th fastest, failing to transfer to the final round by .005 seconds.
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---