By DAN GELSTON AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Alex Bowman admired yet another Daytona 500 pole trophy that he won from mastering the superspeedway over one fast lap ahead of NASCAR’s marquee race.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver still wants to add to his Daytona collection. There’s a championship trophy missing.
“It may not be the big one,” Bowman said. “But it’s not a bad one to have.”
Bowman and Kyle Larson turned Daytona 500 qualifying into another Hendrick Motorsports romp.
Bowman posted the top speed in his No. 48 Chevrolet at Daytona International Speedway and won his third career pole for the race. He’ll be joined by Larson in the No. 5 Chevrolet on the front row for NASCAR’s season opener.
The Hendrick dominance is a recurring theme at Daytona.
“They’ve got something figured out, for sure,” Larson said. “There’s obviously tricks they’ve learned along the way that still apply to these cars.”
Bowman, who missed five races late last season because of a concussion, is on the Daytona 500 front row for the sixth straight time, and the organization has produced a pole winner in eight of the past nine years.
“There’s a ton of effort that goes into trying to qualify well here,” Bowman said.
Jimmie Johnson made a triumphant return to NASCAR on Wednesday night and qualified for the Daytona 500, a tremendous start for the seven-time champion as he heads into his first Cup race since 2020.
The 47-year-old Johnson returned from a two-year dalliance in IndyCar for an ownership stake in Legacy Motor Club – and he quickly added to his own, joining the 40-driver field Wednesday night in his No. 84 Chevrolet.
Yes, a reverse of the No. 48 he ran when he won two Daytona 500s.
“I think I really have a shot to win,” Johnson said before he qualified. “If I survive and get through the first two stages, there’s really a shot that I have to win this race.”
Johnson will be joined Sunday by another 40-something part-timer in former X Games thrill-seeker Travis Pastrana. Pastrana said racing in the Daytona 500 was one of his last motorsports goals and this was his last, best shot to get there. He landed a ride for Daytona in the No. 67 Toyota as a third entry for the NASCAR team owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin.
With 36 drivers already locked into the 40-car field based on NASCAR’s charter system, Johnson and Pastrana were among six others competing for the final four starting spots at Daytona International Speedway.
Johnson and Pastrana embraced on pit row after they locked themselves into the race. They can rest easy for a night.
So can Bowman, who has yet to parlay the top spot into a Daytona 500 win, and Larson. Bowman, who received a new contract and a new crew chief in Blake Harris entering this season, turned a top speed of 181.686 mph and Larson hit 181.057. Both drive Chevrolets for team owner Rick Hendrick.
“Now it’s time to finish,” Bowman said. “Make it to the end.”
The final two open spots and the starting order will be settled in Thursday night’s duel qualifying races. Conor Daly, Austin Hill, Chandler Smith and Zane Smith will vie for the two open spots.
Smith was the first car out for qualifying and promptly stalled before he took a second shot at his lap. Smith’s meager speed at least was better than Daly, who suffered oil line problems in his Chevrolet and did not take a qualifying run.
Because NASCAR did not have practice at the superspeedway before Wednesday, teams did not have any time to hit the track and work out kinks in their cars.
It felt like old times for Johnson.
The former Hendrick Motorsports star had seemingly walked away from NASCAR after the 2020 season but he never scored a podium finish over 29 starts in two IndyCar seasons. So it was back to NASCAR, only this time with a say in how to run the operation. He bought into the ownership group of what was Petty GMS Racing and quickly rebranded it to Legacy M.C.
Pastrana was a bigger long shot to make Daytona. He has won championships in supercross, motocross, freestyle motocross, rally racing and, most recently, offshore powerboat racing. He made a brief run at NASCAR a decade ago and raced a full Xfinity Series schedule in 2013 for Roush Fenway Racing.
“I got chewed up and spit out by these guys really fast,” Pastrana said. “At the end of the day, it’s because they’re the best drivers, I believe, in the entire world.”
Pastrana drove the No. 67 Toyota like a seasoned veteran and will join 23XI drivers Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick in the field.
“It’s interesting, a lot of the guys that follow NASCAR, just the fans, they know me as a TV personality or a stunt man,” Pastrana said. “Really, in my heart, I’ve been a racer.”