Breaking down Sunday’s pole qualifying for the Daytona 500

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In storybook fashion, Austin Dillon on Sunday afternoon drove the legendary No. 3 to the pole position for next Sunday’s 56th running of the Daytona 500.

It was the first time any driver has attempted to qualify the No. 3 since the late Dale Earnhardt did so in 2001, just days before he was tragically killed in a last-lap crash in the 500.

Without question, Dillon putting what many fans still to this day consider as Earnhardt’s car at the front of the field, and to take the green flag for next Sunday’s running of the Great American Race, will bring a big boost to NASCAR’s popularity — and will likely help deliver more ticket sales and higher TV ratings for the season opener.

Dillon was the only driver to exceed 196 mph, with a top qualifying run of 196.019 mph at 45.914 seconds.

Almost as surprising was Martin Truex Jr.’s impressive run to earn the outside pole for the 500. Truex was next fastest at 195.852 mph at 45.953 seconds.

That in itself is a great accomplishment, but it’s magnified by the fact that Truex is driving for a single-car operation, Furniture Row Racing. FRR made history last season when then-driver Kurt Busch made it the first single-car team to ever qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“Front row is what we’re here for today,” Truex said. “Obviously, we can’t say enough about this team. What a great job. I think we’ve got about six miles on this car. One run yesterday, no testing down here, just an amazing job by everybody on the team.

“Obviously, I’m a pretty lucky guy to get to hold the wheel.”

Luck may have played a part in his run, but Truex had help. The same motors that powered Dillon to the pole and three other Richard Childress Racing drivers, also powered Truex’s car – putting five ECR-powered cars in the top 12 fastest rides.

After Dillon and Truex were three other RCR drivers, fifth-fastest Ryan Newman (195.707), 10th-fastest Paul Menard (194.919) and 12th-fastest Brian Scott (194.776).

Only Dillon and Truex have their qualifying spots locked in for the 500. The remainder of the 43-car field will solidify its qualifying spots on the starting grid in Thursday’s Budweiser Twin 150 Duels.

Let’s look at some of the other top storylines that emerged from Sunday’s activities:

* Ford power is back – well, at least in its qualifying efforts. Greg Biffle looked like he might sit on the outside pole until Truex knocked him off. But still, The Biff had a stout run of 195.818 mph. Right behind him at fourth-fastest was Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards (195.712). Brad Keselowski’s Team Penske entry was sixth-fastest (195.296), and ninth-fastest Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (195.004) made it four Fords in the top 10. All told, Ford-powered cars clocked in seven of the 15th-fastest runs of the day, while Chevrolets had the other eight-fast speeds.

* What happened to Toyota? After Denny Hamlin won Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, you’d have thought Toyota drivers would have strong runs in Sunday’s pole qualifying. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as the fastest Toyota driver was last season’s Sprint Cup championship runner-up, Matt Kenseth, who clocked in 17th-fastest at 194.574 mph. Clint Bowyer, who made the day’s final qualifying attempt, was 20th-fastest (194.523). Kyle Busch, who stirred controversy before his run by wondering if there was a conspiracy theory to put both Dillon’s and Dale Earnhardt’s cars on the front row (Earnhardt ultimately was seventh-fastest), was only 21st fastest (194.502). Hamlin, meanwhile, was 22nd-fastest (194.477).

* Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus struggled all day. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet failed to get through two pre-qualifying tech inspections. The first time, the car was too wide by 1/10,000ths of an inch, and its side skirts were just under 1/64th of an inch too long. Once those problems were corrected, the car was brought back for inspection, only to be sent back again when it wound up being 1 ½ pounds lighter than minimal requirements. Knaus and crew eventually got everything up to par, but Johnson – the defending Daytona 500 winner – couldn’t muster more than a 14th-fastest speed of 194.637 mph.

* What happened to Stewart-Haas Racing? You’ll have to go pretty far down on the speed charts to find an SHR driver. Kevin Harvick paced his four teammates at 23rd-fastest (194.422), Danica Patrick was 25th-fastest (194.380), Kurt Busch was 28th-fastest (194.078) and team leader Tony Stewart was 35th-fastest (193.365). Could the motor failures that Stewart and Patrick suffered during practice Saturday have left the team gun-shy in its qualifying runs?

* Dave Blaney was supposed to make a qualifying effort but never reached the grid.

* Ageless Morgan Shepherd (okay, he’s 72) was slowest on the qualifying grid with a 48th-fastest speed (189.542).

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Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.