Atwood Best In The West

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Jeff Gordon is on his way to his fourth NASCAR Winston Cup championship.

Friday, the man who led Gordon to three of those titles took another driver to the top of the Winston Cup leaderboard.

Casey Atwood won Friday’s pole for Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Speedway, putting one of Ray Evernham’s Dodges at the top of the speed charts. In the process, he became the youngest pole winner in the history of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, at the age of 21.

Atwood went 131.296 mph to knock John Andretti off the pole and claim his first Winston Cup pole. Atwood has been fast as a teammate to Bill Elliott, qualifying in the Top 10 seven times, but Friday was the first time he beat the Winston Cup field.

“Our car was a little bit loose, but it was good enough to win the pole today,” Atwood said. “That’s all we needed. It ran really great. The thing had a great motor in it and went down the straightaway really well. The car was hooked up.”

Evernham left his crew chief position at Hendrick Motorsports last year to lead Dodge’s return to Winston Cup. Dodge has won three races in 2001, but none have been Evernham cars. Still, Atwood relishes his chance to work with Evernham.

“It’s been great,” Atwood said. “He’s really taught me a lot. This has been a little bit of a struggling year, but I’ve learned more this year than I’ve learned throughout my whole racing career. I really think it’s going to help me out throughout my career.

“He’s obviously a proven winner and champion, and any time you can gain knowledge from him, it’s very helpful.”

Andretti’s lap of 131.071 mph was .047 seconds slower than Atwood, but led a decent day for Petty Enterprises. All three Petty cars made the field for only the 16th time this season, with Buckshot Jones qualifying 19th and Kyle Petty 28th after being fastest in practice.

Jeff Burton qualified third to match his best starting spot of the season. Rusty Wallace was fourth, with Robert Pressley fifth. Elliott was sixth, followed by Kenny Wallace, Ron Hornaday, Ricky Craven and Ken Schrader.

Schrader’s effort meant he qualified 11th or better in all three races at Phoenix this weekend.

Gordon, comfortably in front of Ricky Rudd in the race for the Winston Cup championship, qualified 14th on his second lap after a slow first lap. Gordon matched Stacy Compton’s speed, but Gordon got the position because he is higher in points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., last week’s winner at Talladega Superspeedway, qualified a disappointing 30th. Tony Stewart, third behind Gordon and Rudd in the points standings, was 22nd. Sterling Marlin, fourth in points, was 31st, while fifth-place Dale Jarrett was 16th.

Gordon has come a long way since his days with Evernham. After struggling last year, Gordon has surged back to the front. He leads Rudd by 395 points with five races remaining. Only a series of bad races can keep Gordon from becoming only the third driver to win more than three championships. Only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, with seven each, have more than Gordon.

But despite a huge lead in the standings, Gordon isn’t counting on anything.

“We’re not worried about finishing in a certain position during these last few races to guarantee the championship,” Gordon said. “We’re trying to win each race. If we can’t win, we want to finish as high as possible. We’re not going to change our game plan around this late in the season.”

Phoenix has been a bit of a bugaboo for Gordon, as it’s one of the few remaining tracks at which he hasn’t won.

“We really want to win this race,” Gordon said. “We’ve raced here since 1993 and haven’t won in a Cup car. I’ve won a Busch race, but this team really wants to win a Cup race here.”

Rudd, his closest pursuer, has won at Phoenix, taking the checkered flag in 1995. But a victory that got away last year still stings. Rudd was leading with 19 laps to go when cars crashed in front of him, and Rudd couldn’t avoid the wreck.

“Not being able to win at Phoenix last year was incredibly disappointing,” said Rudd, who was 21st Friday. “Because the car was so good and everything was going our way, my plan was to keep driving in front until the end of the race. I had led for about 40 laps when I saw the wreck way up in front of me.

“I thought I was going to be in good shape, but cars kept wrecking and sliding to the inside of the track – right into my path. Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid it.”

Rudd said the Phoenix race was the most disappointing of several near-victories in 2000.

“Our team had several heartbreakers last year, but Phoenix was one of the worst,” Rudd said. “However, I’m optimistic about Sunday’s race. Along with running well here last year, the No. 28 team has proven that we’re now a championship-contending team.

“I’m ready for Phoenix. I’d like to go out there and get the one that got away from us last year.”

Kevin Harvick took his first provisional of his career and will start 37th. The other provisionals went to Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Jerry Nadeau, Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon and Bobby Hamilton Jr.

Rick Bogart was the only driver to fail to qualify.

Sunday’s race is scheduled to begin at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

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