Saving The Best For Last

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Friday’s first-round qualifying for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 Winston Cup event at Homestead-Miami Speedway had some new faces and some familiar faces. It was one of the “familiar” faces leading the field, though.

In a track-record time of 34.518 seconds (156.440 mph), Steve Park earned his second pole of the season and will lead the field into the second Winston Cup event in the track’s history. Last year’s pole speed – set by David Green – was 155.759 mph.

“I really have to thank the guys back in the shop, because we changed this motor just before leaving for the track,” Park said. “With this race being sponsored by Pennzoil, we wanted to do well, and we had a great team effort to do that today.”

Rudd, looking for his third pole of the season, led qualifying right up until the last driver out… Park.

“This car has been fast since we’ve been here,” said Rudd, who appeared to be on the way to his first win of the season last week before being taken out by Mike Bliss in the No. 27 car late in the race. “It’s the same car that almost got destroyed at Phoenix last week, but the guys put it back together and this has been a good car for us.

“This is the kind of track that you have to finesse a little bit, and these guys, led by (crew chief) Michael McSwain, know how to put a good chassis on these cars.”

Bobby Labonte will start third on Sunday, followed by Jimmy Spencer and young Casey Atwood in the No. 19 Motorola Ford.

Though super soph Tony Stewart – who leads the series with five wins this year and will start 13th - will be looking to defend his crown after winning the inaugural event at Homestead last season, all eyes this weekend are likely to be shifted toward his teammate, Labonte.

Labonte - in the same car he used to win at Indianapolis earlier this year - will be looking to clinch his first Winston Cup title, and the first for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“We ran as fast as we did in practice earlier, but we didn’t pick up any speed,” Labonte said. “We ran faster than we did last year, but with other guys picking up speed from practice that makes you worry a little bit.”

The scenarios for Labonte to win the title Sunday – the next-to-last race of the season – are a fifth-place finish, a sixth-place finish and a lap led, or, a seventh-place finish and the most laps led.

With a 218-point lead over Dale Earnhardt heading into the race, Labonte can also clinch by leaving Homestead with at least a 186-point lead, or by finishing 28th or better in the final two races.

Earnhardt – who finished eighth in this race last year – was a disappointing 36th fastest on Friday.

The Gibbs boys – Stewart and Labonte – were the cars to beat last season, and nobody could do it. Stewart won the race – the third of his rookie season – and Labonte beat Jeff Burton and Mark Martin to the line to finish second. It was a win Stewart says he’ll never forget.

“It’s always special when you can win an inaugural race anywhere,” Stewart said. “I had run at Homestead in a Busch car a couple of times, and some of the Cup guys had run Busch races at Homestead, too. But for the most part, everyone was a rookie, because nobody had any more experience than the next guy. It was a proud day for the Home Depot team.”

With a race under their belts, plus plenty of testing at the track by most of the teams, the 1.5-mile track is no longer something new to the drivers. That doesn’t mean fans didn’t have to check their programs several times on Friday, though.

Turning the nearly flat corners and rolling down the 1,760-foot straightaways on Friday were some car-and-driver combinations fans are unaccustomed to seeing. Included in that group was veteran driver Geoffrey Bodine, who won the very first Craftsman Truck Series pole at Homestead back in 1996. Bodine, fired by Bessey Motorsports a couple of months ago, was 35th fastest in the No. 98 MacPherson Motorsports machine. He’ll be driving a No. 35 Andy Petree-owned machine next week in Atlanta.

Other non-regulars attempting to qualify included Atwood in the Ray Evernham-owned Ford (fifth fastest); Kyle Petty for the second time this season in the No. 45 Sprint machine (43rd); Bobby Hamilton Jr. – winner of the Busch Series pole Friday - driving the No. 57 Chevy owned by his racing father (29th); and Hermie Sadler steering the No. 60 Bessey car (44th).

It was the familiar faces and rides that led the way Friday, though. Filling out the Top 10 in the qualifying order were Joe Nemechek, Dale Jarrett, Ward Burton, Brett Bodine and Kurt Busch.

Homestead holds a special place in Jarrett’s heart, as he clinched his first title at this race last season with a fifth-place finish. Jarrett is also one of six drivers entered for Sunday’s race that has a win at the track. Stewart, Jarrett, Kevin Lepage, Nemechek (twice), Jeff Burton and Andy Houston have all won at Homestead in either Cup, Busch Series or Craftsman Truck Series competition.

Another familiar face, looking to make the next-to-last run of his brilliant career, is three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip – who was 24th fastest Friday and had only one provisional remaining this year – is hoping for a much better run than last season. In the inaugural race at Homestead, the legend started 42nd and finished 43rd.

One of the drivers who was happy with his car but not totally pleased with his qualifying attempt, was Martin, who qualified 11th. The veteran has yet to win a pole this season, and is now just one qualifying chance away from missing the Bud Shootout in February at Daytona. The Shootout – a race for pole winners from the season before – is something Martin hasn’t missed being a part of since not winning a pole in the 1987 season.

“My car never came around for me last week at Phoenix,” said Martin, who will be making his 400th start for Roush Racing. “So if this car can run like it did in qualifying today, I’ll be really happy with that.”

Another pole favorite, Rusty Wallace, wasn’t able to pull of the magic that’s led him to nine poles this season… not even close. Wallace will start Sunday’s race 17th.

“I thought we’d be a lot better than that,” Wallace said. “It’s a brand new car, and it’s a good car, but we made some changes on the shocks and that hurt us.”

NBC will be covering the race live on Sunday, starting at 12:30 p.m. (ET).

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