NASCAR Cup Series

Larson, Bowman qualify on the DAYTONA 500 front row; Villeneuve, Gragson get in on speed

By Holly Cain

NASCAR Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson has started 2022 off the way he ended 2021 – out front. The 29-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver won the pole position for Sunday’s Daytona 500 season-opener with a lap of 181.159 mph in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Wednesday night at Daytona International Speedway.

And for a record fifth consecutive year, Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman has also earned a front row starting position in the DAYTONA 500. He’ll start the No. 48 Chevrolet second.

All four of the Hendrick Motorsports cars advanced to top-10 final round and ultimately were among the five fastest qualifiers. Only the front row was set Wednesday night with the remaining Daytona 500 field finalized in Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel 150 qualifying races (7 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“It’s unbelievable,” Bowman said of the record. “It just says so much about Hendrick Motorsports and these guys. It’s cool to have the record but I feel like Greg Ives and the race team should get the credit. The driver doesn’t do much.”

“Hopefully we can figure out how to win it,” Bowman added with a smile.

This is the seventh Daytona 500 pole position in eight years for the team. And it’s Larson’s career best starting position.

“It’s really neat,” Larson said. “I mean anytime you are really proud of your team to get a pole here ‘cause this is the littlest it has to do with us drivers, qualifying at superspeedways.

“Everybody’s who’s had a part in touching these vehicles, whether it be on the computer, engineering or just hands-on. It’s really neat, just awesome the speed in our Chevy. Hopefully this is the beginning of a really good season.

“Almost feels like my proudest pole,” he continued, “because you’re proud of everybody who had an impact in doing it.”

Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 Formula One world champion and 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner, qualified for his career first Daytona 500 Wednesday night by virtue of earning one of two “Open’ positions available in pole qualifying – recording the 34th fastest speed in the No. 27 Team Hezeberg Ford.

Noah Gragson, a fulltime NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contender, also earned an automatic bid into the Daytona 500 with a 33rd best qualifying lap. Sunday will mark his NASCAR Cup Series debut.

Two other Open cars – representing teams without NASCAR Charters – will be able to make the 40-car grid based upon their finish in the Bluegreen Vacations Duel 150s, which set the final starting order of the Daytona 500 grid.

This will mark Villeneuve’s fifth career NASCAR Cup Series start and first ever in stock car racing’s crown jewel. The last time he raced in the series was 2013 when he recorded a 41st-place finish in Sonoma, Calif. His best previous series finish was 21st – at Talladega, Ala. in his first career NASCAR Cup Series start.

“Just to make the show is incredible,” Villeneuve said, adding, “To be able to make such a big race at such a high level is amazing. When I’m in a race car I don’t realize I’m 50 years old, which is good. As long as it carries on like this, I can’t imagine myself stopping racing.”

Gragson’s showing in the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet was equally as dramatic. His team owner Linda Beard – along with her children – is fielding the family-owned team in honor of her late husband Mark. It is only planning on running the superspeedway races and Gragson’s work Wednesday marks the team’s fifth start in the Daytona 500.

“It’s really emotional being able to make the race after not making it last year,” Gragson said, adding, “Last year not making the race, makes this year that much more special. … I really hope to make the Beard family proud this weekend.”

Judging by the smile and emotion she showed on pit road following the qualifying session, Gragson indeed made her proud.

“People that don’t race have no idea how much this means. .. when you are team like us, we love it,” Linda Beard said. “To do this, means so much to us, not only emotionally but just the thrill of it.”

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