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Chase Elliott gets pole, Matt DiBenedetto breathes sigh of relief

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It was a day for young drivers Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. The most nervous and the most happy of them all might be one without the last names of Elliott and Blaney that most fans know.

Chase Elliott, son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, won the pole for the 2016 Daytona 500, setting a record as the youngest driver (20 years, two months and 17 days) ever to accomplish that feat. He had some nerves and obviously a big smile as he has never competed in a Daytona 500, but did step into the Hendrick Motorsports seat replacing Jeff Gordon, who won the pole for the 2015 Daytona 500, also with crew chief Alan Gustafson.

Elliott, the 2014 Xfinity Series champion, knew he had a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500 and one lap is nothing like 200.

"I just wanted to try to do my job, try not to mess anything up," Elliott said. "I know Alan felt really good about qualifying, hopefully having a shot at the pole. I just didn't want to mess up, try to hit my marks, move forward from there.

"But there were definitely some nerves."

Two other young drivers didn't have guaranteed spots -- until they guaranteed themselves a place on the grid as the two fastest non-guaranteed cars in qualifying. Ryan Blaney, the 22-year-old son of former Sprint Cup driver Dave Blaney, knew he had a fast car and finished seventh overall.

"I wasn't really too nervous going into today," Blaney said. "I knew we had a really fast race car. We just had to do our job and we did it and we just had to lock ourselves in. I really wasn't feeling any different than I do any other day."

Matt DiBenedetto, though, knew he would need nearly everything out of his BK Racing car to guarantee him a place in the field. And the 24-year-old did -- by two-hundredths of a second over Michael McDowell for the 24th spot overall, but more importantly the second spot among the open cars.

DiBenedetto is slated to run the full year for BK Racing, but because Michael Waltrip brought sponsorship to the Daytona 500, he was in one of the BK Racing non-guaranteed cars for Daytona. DiBenedetto did have a top-of-the-line engine from Toyota Racing Development for qualifying Sunday and the qualifying races Thursday.

"Man, I get to sleep well this week, finally," said DiBenedetto. "I was really nervous all night. ... I was more nervous probably for that than my first Sprint Cup race ever. I was shaking."

DiBenedetto had failed to qualify for two races last year before making it in the final 33 events with an average start of 36th and an average finish of 32nd. No wonder he had nerves, up against the obviously fast cars that Elliott and Blaney have piloted all weekend.

"I was real nervous [this week] and not quite as confident I should have been," DiBenedetto said. "I know what kind of work goes with putting a third car out there in less than two weeks and then a fourth car [for Richardson]. ... I've been nervous for a lot of qualifying efforts but nothing to this degree. This is the Daytona 500. It's huge."

DiBenedetto now gets to take care of his car Thursday. The top-finishing non-guaranteed -- or "open" -- car in each qualifying race Thursday gets a spot in the Daytona 500, with the next two spots based on qualifying speed for Sunday.

That puts McDowell and Robert Richardson Jr. on the bubble. They could get in on speed if Blaney is the best in his duel and/or if DiBenedetto is the best in his. But the fact is that Blaney and DiBenedetto likely will play it cautious Thursday, forcing McDowell and Richardson to join David Gilliland, Cole Whitt, Josh Wise and Reed Sorenson in needing to race their way into the Daytona 500.

Those are the drivers with the real nerves. For a driver such as Elliott, he just needs to handle having a fast car and now even bigger expectations.

"For me, just trying to let it sink in a little bit, I think is going to be important," Elliott said. "We need to be smart about that and try to have this car for next Sunday."

That means Elliott has the pole but has more work to do beyond the slew of media interviews that comes with having it. He has to have a good practice Wednesday night and put himself in some positions to learn the draft Thursday while also not tearing up a pole-winning race car. And then he'll be ready to compete in his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, leading the field to green.

"The most important thing is what goes on the racetrack, trying to be prepared, from a mental standpoint, physically as well, just try to wrap your head around what's to come. ... The media side is what it is," Elliott said.

"I think as much of it will get to you as you let it. That's the way I go about it."

In other words, this 20-year-old known for his laser focus will remain focused. He'll do the media stuff he has to do all the while thinking about why he's in Daytona in the first place. He knows he has a career-best finish of 16th in five Cup starts and it all gets real -- real quick -- next Sunday.

"Nothing special I did to earn it," Elliott said. "It's about those guys, the kind of car they brought to the race track. That's the biggest thing I look at.

"I'm Just excited to be part of the race team. I want to make sure I try my best to do the job that they deserve."