It really doesn’t matter where you start in the Daytona 500, but that doesn’t mean time trials for the Great American Race are entirely unimportant.
For one, when there are 44 entrants and you’re sending four of them home before taking the green flag, that matters.
But even for those with a charter and a guaranteed starting spot, there is a tremendous amount of pride that goes into preparing for the most important qualifying session of the year and validating the work of an entire off-season.
It’s a night where crew chiefs, engineers and team managers take center stage. With drivers full-throttle all the way around the 2.5-mile superspeedway, performance is largely determined by just how much speed a team has uncovered at the shop.
The industry spent so much time vilifying crew chiefs for their efforts to work around the rule book these days that it doesn’t give enough credit to the entire teams who make a Cup Series race work. Thursday night is about the entire team.
"For us, it's a showcase," Ives said. "It's the pinnacle of the hot rods that we bring out of our race shop. I know there's a lot of pride in every piece, every car, just from the paint job all the way down to the last nut and bolt.
"It's that pride that each shop member has. It's hard to explain. Obviously, I'm mumbling up here about it, but there's something special about Daytona, something special about the 500 and qualifying on the front row."
So, the history books will acknowledge that Alex Bowman captured his second Daytona 500 pole in four years, but it should also acknowledge crew chief Greg Ives and his team who made the No. 48 car the best amongst an elite four-car stable that has equal access to the resources.
As for the drivers, don’t think that the historical significance of winning the Daytona 500 pole is lost on them either. The list of drivers who have led the field to green is largely equivalent to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Bowman joins Chase Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker and Donnie Allison as drivers to claim the pole on multiple occasions.
It’s the 14th time Hendrick Motorsports has won the pole for the Great American Race, sixth time in a row, and seventh time the team has swept the front row.
This time it came with Bowman and William Byron.
That means something to Hendrick Motorsports, too.
"I think it means a lot to Mr. H," Bowman said. "He wants to win everything. Like every category, he wants to be top of the list, everything. It means a lot to Greg because he wants to prove that he can build the fastest race car probably.
"And it's a lot of pride for the guys in our body shop, for the guys in our engine shop, to prove that they're putting the best product on the racetrack that they possibly can.
"You know, I think it's just a real big source of pride for everybody that they feel like there's -- most racetracks we go to you're trying to dial the race car in to the driver, and there's a lot of, like, there's a lot of other things that go into it.
"Here it really just comes down to who built the fastest race car. And I think it's important for Hendrick Motorsports to come up and prove that they're the ones that did that."
Given the current state of superspeedway racing, the starting position doesn’t mean entirely a lot, although it does determine pit stall selection, which isn’t entirely unimportant.
When the green flag waves, you could make a plausible argument for 35 cars to somehow win this race, and it often has little to do with how they fared during single car time trials.
But it matters, is important, and historically significant. Alex Bowman, Greg Ives and the entire No. 48 team won the first race of the season, even if the trophy is only a matter of pride.
WHAT MATTERS ABOUT TOMORROW?
You know who time trials really mattered to?
Literally everyone without an ownership charter who wasn’t locked into the Great American Race was a result.
There are eight teams attempting to make the Daytona 500 without charter protections this year and only two of them locked in through time trials by posting the two fastest speeds amongst their open peers.
Ryan Preece and David Ragan will take the green flag no matter what transpires on Thursday.
Thus ended one of the most dramatic narratives of Speedweeks before it could truly begin. Preece has raced full-time with a charter over the past two seasons, but Drew Braun took that charter from the No. 37 JTG-Daugherty Motorsports team to the No. 7 Spire Motorsports team.
In other words, Preece will have to qualify into the show every week and is at risk of running just a partial season if he can’t find funding to run the full 36.
Winning the Daytona 500 would go a long way to course correcting that adversity, but he needed to make the show first.
"You could tell everything was tense, but my racing career has been like this, so it’s no different," Preece said. "I was feeling confident in the car we were bringing, and obviously practice showed that. ... That made qualifying that much easier."
Ragan retired from full-time competition after the 2019 season but has entered the Daytona 500 over the past two years.
The 2011 July Daytona winner felt confident he could race his way in if need be, but that won’t matter now either.
"It was a different feeling to come to Daytona and not be locked in and know I had a lot of pressure," Ragan said. "I really thought it could happen either way. I knew we had a good chance to qualify in and race in. They built this car new in the offseason."
Who does that leave needing to race their way in?
Defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric of Team Penske needs to either win his qualifying race or he needs Preece or Ragan to be the highest finishing driver their duels. Kaz Grala of Kaulig Racing needs to either be the highest finishing driver in his duel, or for Preece or Cindric to lead the open cars in the first duel and for Ragan to do the same in his duel.
Ty Dillon of Gaunt Brothers Racing, Garrett Smithley and Timmy Hill of Motorsports Business Management, and Noah Gragson of Beard Motorsports absolutely must be the highest finishing open driver to make the biggest race of the year.
For each of them, qualifying absolutely mattered, just like the Duel at Daytona will on Thursday.
BUBBA WALLACE AND 23XI SHOWS SPEED
For the briefest of moments, conspiracy theories were running rampant as Bubba Wallace posted the quickest time through 21 entrants, before losing the provisional pole to William Byron four cars later.
There have been some black helicopter inspiring pole runs over the years so everyone was ready for it.
While Wallace didn’t capture the pole for the Daytona 500, it was a very good initial showing for 23XI Racing, the No. 23 posting the fourth quickest time.
He was also fastest in practice while working with his fellow Toyota Racing Development stablemates at Joe Gibbs Racing -- including team co-owner Denny Hamlin.
"Everything is clicking," Wallace said. "Everything just feels good, a smooth transition. At the end of the day, it’s a race car, but the way we have spent time and going through looking at everything – things are standing out that are a little bit different. ... My motto is, 'No more excuses,' and right now, I don’t have an excuse, so it’s good."
He also got another text from his other, more notable co-owner, Michael Jordan.
"It was very positive," said Wallace, who was second in the 2018 Daytona 500. "We’re all excited. He gets in town tomorrow. I’m pumped. It’s shaping up to be a good week."
Maybe they’ll play golf together at some point, he says, but he really hopes to celebrate with the Harley J. Earl.
He’ll have one of the best prepared cars to get it done.
" The ways things are we are going, we just have to keep it going, keep the positive momentum going," Wallace said. "I feel really good in the car, confident. Still getting things worked.
"But all and all it comes pretty natural when you have a great team behind you."