A fresh start with the usual twists and turns

NASCAR began its 2019 season Sunday with qualifying for next week’s Daytona 500 and the non-points Advance Auto Parts Clash taking place at Daytona International Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports teams swept the top four positions in qualifying, an admirable achievement particularly in light of the organization’s overall struggles in 2018. That’s five in a row, perhaps an even more impressive feat, for HMS teams by the way.

But it was an achievement soon overshadowed.

The big story, of course, was the finish of the Clash.

Officially, the end came after rain hit the track for the third time, forcing officials to pull the plug with 59 laps of the 75-lap race completed.

Unofficially, it ended after one of two things happened:

• Jimmie Johnson wrecked race leader Paul Menard

or

• Race leader Paul Menard crashed while trying to block Jimmie Johnson.

Maybe it was just “one of them racing deals” we’re always hearing about. The race, and the track, have certainly had their share through the years.

What we do know is that once the smoke had cleared, 17 cars were listed as having been involved in the crash.

It was a 20-car field so this is one instance where it really is easier to just list everyone who wasn’t involved. That would be Kurt Busch, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

The three finished second, third and fourth. Fast closing but not fast enough to catch Johnson, who was making his ’19 debut with new sponsor Ally and new crew chief Kevin Meendering.

“I didn’t hit his rear bumper cover,” Johnson said afterward, meaning he didn’t slam the No. 21 Ford out of the way.

“I’m here to win races … but I didn’t drive through a car and create a wreck.”

While he said he hated that others wound up with torn-up race cars, the seven-time series champion reminded everyone that “I have a split-second decision to try to win a race, and I set up the pass and got position on him clean. 

“I don’t know what triggered his car wobbling and then the accident started from there,” Johnson said.

Menard said he wasn’t aware of what caused the wreck until after watching a replay of the incident.

“I felt like it was aggressive side-drafting,” Menard said. “I got turned to the inside and hooked to the right and all hell broke loose.”

It was a disappointing ending for Menard, who had led 51 laps up to that point.

It was a relief for Johnson, the Hendrick Motorsports racer who is still looking for a points-paying win after getting shut out in 2018.

For everyone else, it was nothing more than an expensive afternoon.

Punctuated by the type of finish that surely surprised no one.

• William Byron, the 21-year-old who won the Xfinity Series title in 2017 and was quickly hustled up to Cup to take over the seat of the No. 24 Chevrolet at HMS, will start on the pole for the 61st running of the season-opening race.

He’ll be joined on the front row by HMS teammate Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Byron sped around the 2.5-mile layout at 194.305 mph; Bowman clocked in at 194.154 mph.

Johnson and Elliott were third and fourth fastest, respectively.

Only the front row is locked in for the Daytona 500, with the bulk of the starting lineup determined through next Thursday’s two 60-lap, 150-mile qualifying races. Byron will start on the pole in one, Bowman out front in the other.

Byron may be a youngster, but he’s got a veteran in his corner. Chad Knaus, who guided Johnson to his seven titles and all but two of his 83 career wins, is heading up the No. 24 team this year.

It was Byron’s first career pole in 37 attempts in the Cup Series.

The fastest non-Hendrick car was the No. 8 Chevrolet of rookie Daniel Hemric (Richard Childress Racing), who checked in fifth. Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano was sixth (Ford) and Martin Truex Jr., making his first start with Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) seventh.

For the record, Daytona 500 pole winners and Daytona 500 winners haven’t been the same in quite some time, since 2000 as a matter of fact.

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