Alex Bowman puts No. 88 on the pole at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Alex Bowman put a familiar car atop the Daytona 500 leaderboard.
Bowman won the pole for “The Great American Race” in his debut as the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet, piloted until last season by NASCAR rock star Dale Earnhardt Jr. Six of Earnhardt’s 17 career victories at Daytona International Speedway came in that car, including one of his Daytona 500 victories.
Earnhardt was a seven-time pole winner at Daytona, too.
Now retired, the empty seat in the No. 88 went to Bowman, and he wasted little time making the Camaro his own. Bowman turned a lap at 195.644 mph Sunday to earn the top starting spot for the Daytona 500.
“I think it’s still a little surreal,” said Bowman, who will race in his second Daytona 500.
“It’s a dream come true just to drive for Hendrick Motorsports,” Bowman said. “I never would have thought it would happen after the path my career took.”
Denny Hamlin, the 2016 winner, qualified second in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing with a lap at 195.092. Only the top two cars locked in spots for next Sunday’s season-opening race in this round of qualifying. The remainder of the field will be set by a pair of qualifying races Thursday.
Bowman was a driver struggling to piece together a schedule when Earnhardt was injured in 2016. Earnhardt missed the second half of that season with a concussion, and Bowman was tabbed to fill in for 10 of those races.
The 24-year-old Arizona native impressed Rick Hendrick enough that when Earnhardt said he would retire at the end of 2017, Bowman got the job.
He made his boss proud, too, with the pole-winning run. Hendrick is now tied with Harry Ranier for the record of most consecutive Daytona 500 poles at four. Jeff Gordon won the pole in 2015, Chase Elliott won it the past two seasons and now Bowman has the honor.
Bowman downplayed his role.
“I just held the steering wheel. It’s Daytona,” he said.
Indeed, pole qualifying is a display of horsepower and there’s no doubt that Hendrick Motorsports has it for “The Great American Race.” Hendrick put Chevrolet on the pole for the sixth consecutive year.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson was third fastest, rookie William Byron was fifth and Elliott was 10th in Hendrick engines. The driver simply turns the laps on qualifying day, and the fastest cars climb to the top.
“We knew we were going for the pole, that’s what we’re here to do,” Bowman said. “I was a little nervous for that second round, but we took off well on pit road and did everything I could do. This really come down to the crew, everybody works so hard.”
Earnhardt tweeted congratulations to his replacement, who also won a Cup pole while filling in for Earnhardt in 2016. Bowman raced just three times on the national level last season, two Xfinity Series races and one in the Truck Series, and filled his time using a simulator as he waited for Earnhardt to retire.
Hamlin was thrilled to have earned such a strong starting spot at second.
“I realistically set my expectations and would have been happy with 18th,” Hamlin said. “This came out of the blue for me and is a great opportunity for me to win a second Daytona 500.”
The Toyotas were fast, though, and all four JGR entries were in the top seven Sunday. Kyle Busch was fourth, Erik Jones sixth and Daniel Suarez seventh.
Defending NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr., also a Toyota driver, was 26th and searching for the same speed the Gibbs cars displayed.
“Speed-wise we’ve been off a bit here,” Truex said. “I don’t know, new rules package and all, we’re just trying to figure that out. There’s not a whole lot you can do when you get down here. You kind of got what you got. We’re going to hope that our car handles really good and we can out drive them in race trim.”
Kurt Busch, winner of the Daytona 500 last year, was 17th fastest. His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick had the fastest Ford at eighth and was followed by Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won two plate races last season. Ford drivers won all four of last season’s restrictor plate races, where the strength of an engine is one of the most important tools.
“I didn’t think we would run that fast,” Harvick admitted. “The speed is better than we expected.”
Danica Patrick was 28th in her final NASCAR single-car qualifying session. She’s racing in only the Daytona 500 and then the Indianapolis 500 in May before she retires as a race car driver.
“Everything is the same as it was before as far as showing up to Daytona without having driven since Homestead, so that is no different,” she said.
More AP Auto Racing: