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AP photo by Terry Renna / NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. walks along pit road at Daytona International Speedway before Sunday's Cup Series qualifying session in Daytona Beach, Fla. The Daytona 500 is Feb. 16.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. needed just two days to get his new team to the top.

Stenhouse won the pole position for next Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, putting JTG-Daugherty Racing in the NASCAR spotlight for at least a week. The 32-year-old former Roush Fenway Racing driver, who spent the first decade of his career in a Ford, secured just his third pole in 257 Cup Series starts and first at Daytona International Speedway on his second day in the new Chevrolet Camaro.

His first day behind the wheel of the No. 47 car was during practice Saturday.

"It's the best driving Camaro I've ever driven," Stenhouse quipped.

Stenhouse turned a fast lap at 194.582 mph, edging Alex Bowman for the top spot. Bowman reached 194.363 mph around the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway to lock down a front-row spot for the third consecutive Daytona 500. He finished 17th and 11th in the past two.

"As a race car driver, there's not much you can do to make them go faster," Bowman said. "But you can sure screw them up, so at least I didn't do that."

Only the top two spots were determined during Sunday's single-car qualifying session. The starting order for the rest of the 40-car field will be set by a pair of qualifying races Thursday at Daytona as Speedweeks continues.

Hendrick Motorsports had a big day, too. JTG-Daugherty's engines are built by Hendrick due to a technical alliance between the organizations, and Hendrick drivers Bowman, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson were second through fourth on the speed chart.

Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, who won the Daytona 500 last year and in 2016, was the fifth-fastest driver. Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota was followed by teammate Kyle Busch, who last season won his second Cup Series championship. Stewart-Haas Racing's Aric Almirola was seventh on the list in the fastest Ford and the only one in the top 10.

Winning the pole often means little, if anything, at NASCAR's premier event — no pole winner has gone on to win "the Great American Race" since NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett in 2000.

For Stenhouse, the accomplishment meant everything.

He was surprisingly dumped by Roush Fenway Racing in October, long after the two-time Xfinity Series champion thought he was good for another year with the only NASCAR team for which he has driven on a full-time basis. RFR had a chance to bring back former developmental driver Chris Buescher, however, and gave him Stenhouse's seat in the No. 17 Ford.

Stenhouse, coincidentally, replaced Buescher at JTG-Daugherty and brought crew chief Brian Pattie with him.

"I think there's a handful of us that feel like we have something to prove," Stenhouse said. "I feel like I can still get the job done behind the wheel and win races like we did in the Xfinity Series. That was a huge move for me going over there, bringing people that I'm familiar with that have always been in my corner. I think I'd have been lost not having them there."

There was an opportunity in Sunday qualifying for two teams that don't hold charters to lock up spots in the 40-car starting grid. Justin Haley and Brendan Gaughan, the youngest and oldest drivers on the Daytona 500 entry list, landed those, with each in a Chevy.

Haley was the surprise winner of last July's rain-shortened race at Daytona, getting the victory for Spire Motorsports during a lengthy weather delay. It was his third and final Cup Series start in 2019.

"We definitely have a car fast enough to win this race under green-flag conditions," said the 20-year-old Haley, who is now driving for Kaulig Racing and was 31st on Sunday's speed chart.

The start-up team doesn't have a backup car on hand and expects to be very cautious during its qualifying race.

"It was pretty crucial for us, obviously," Haley said. "I didn't think I was going to be that nervous. But there were a little bit of nerves even though I have a couple of Cup starts. This is still the Daytona 500, something I've always dreamed about."

The 44-year-old Gaughan plans to make four starts this year — all at superspeedways — before retiring. His only top-five finish in 62 career Cup Series starts was in 2004 at Talladega Superspeedway. His speed Sunday ranked 33rd.

"I never knew when the last one was going to be," said Gaughan, whose ride is with Beard Racing. "I know when this one is. We made it, we're here and I'm going to have a (good) time."

Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion who lasted just one Cup Series season at Stewart-Haas Racing after two with JGR, landed a ride with a non-chartered team and will have to race his way into the opener after failing to qualify on speed.

"We have to race, and we have to race hard," said Suarez, whose Gaunt Brothers Racing team was admittedly shocked by the No. 96 Toyota's relatively slow speed in practice and qualifying. "We have a lot of challenges. I know what I can do. I have to go out there Thursday and get it done."

 

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