Mayfield Steals Pole At Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- For a while, it seemed like old times at Talladega Superspeedway, even if the cars were going much slower. Then, Jeremy Mayfield ruined things for the sentimental favorite.

Mayfield won the third NASCAR Winston Cup pole of his career Friday with a speed of 186.969 mph for Sunday's DieHard 500, making him the slowest pole-sitter at the sport's longest, fastest track in 26 years.

Mayfield's effort on the 2.66-mile trioval bumped crowd favorite Bill Elliott from the top spot, denying the Georgia driver his first pole since 1997.

The session, delayed two hours by morning rain, was completed in eerie darkness at the unlighted track. The cars were illuminated on the frontstretch by faint lights from the massive grandstands, then disappeared into the night on the backstretch. But the drivers didn't seem to have any problems.

Elliott was second at 186.936, followed by Dale Jarrett (186.747), Dale Earnhardt (186.518), Mark Martin (186.354) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (186.173).

In the days when no one had heard of restrictor plates and 200 mph speeds were commonplace at Talladega, Elliott was the track's most dominant driver. He won six straight poles from 1985-87, setting the qualifying record of 212.809 mph for the 1987 DieHard 500.

But the ever-frightening speeds prompted NASCAR officials to mandate restrictor plates at Talladega and Daytona, dropping speeds back under 200 mph. The vigilant battle to keep the cars under control took another step this year, when the sport's sanctioning body reduced the plate holes by 1/32 of an inch to seven-eighths.

The result was the slowest pole speed at Talladega since David Pearson started up front for the 1974 Winston 500 at 184.926 mph. In fact, Mayfield was slower than Martin's winning speed for the 1997 Winston 500, when he set a record for a 500-mile race with a caution-free 188.354.

A year ago, Ken Schrader won the DieHard pole at 197.765.

Mayfield, who ranks ninth in the Winston Cup points after eight races, had the fastest car in practice sessions earlier in the day, then backed it up during his two laps around the track in his Ford Taurus.

"That's pretty cool," said Mayfield, earning his first pole of the year and in position to become the ninth different race winner. "We've been struggling all year. To come here and sit on the pole is pretty awesome. I thought we had a pretty good car, but you never know."

Elliott emerged from his Ford with a big smile and high-fived team members. He had not cracked the top 10 in qualifying at Talladega since 1993, when he won his last pole at the track.

"This has been a tough race track for me the last several years," said Elliott, who will make his 600th career start Sunday. "All I had to do was sit there and hold it wide open. If it goes, it goes. If it don't, it don't."

The senior Earnhardt put up one of the best times of the day, even though his Chevrolet Monte Carlo failed inspection prior to qualifying. His team had to cut off about a third of the car and readjust the width of the entire rear section.

"The guys just kept working," said Earnhardt, who arrived a little late for practice after a turkey hunting trip in neighboring Georgia in the morning. "But the biggest thing I'm worried about is drafting and racing. That's what we're going to work on."

Even with a car held together by Bondo, Earnhardt is a force to be reckoned with in the race. He is the most successful driver in Talladega history, winning nine Winston Cup events at the Alabama track.

Martin knocked nine-tenths of a second off his time from the first to second lap, winding up fourth.

"I ran a bad line that first lap," he said. "That (second lap) was all car. I didn't have anything to do with that."

The top 25 positions were decided in the first round of qualifying. Missing the cut was season points leader Bobby Labonte, who had an engine problem and finished 46th out of 48 cars.

Also missing out were Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Terry Labonte and Jeff Burton, all ranked among the top 12.

"We're real disappointed in that," said Gordon, whose 184.136 ranked 34th. "We were a lot faster than that earlier in the day. It's a real shame."

Jeff Burton was scheduled to go out last but shut down his car because of an engine problem. He said it had nothing to do with the darkness.

"You basically run around here with your eyes closed anyway," Burton quipped.

Jarrett said the lack of light was not a problem for him, either, especially with the new restrictor plates.

"If we were running 210 mph, it might have been different," he said. "But at the speeds we're running, it's OK."

DieHard 500 Qualifying Results
DieHard 500 Lineup

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