Rookie Rolls To Daytona Pole

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Sandbagging wasn’t in rookie Jimmie Johnson’s vocabulary during preseason NASCAR Winston Cup Series testing at Daytona International Speedway last month. He was consistently the fastest car on the track during his three-day session.

So, it came as little surprise Saturday afternoon when the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Home Improvement Chevy ripped off a fast lap of 185.831 mph during Bud Pole Qualifying for next Sunday’s Daytona 500. Johnson became the third rookie ever to win the pole for “The Great American Race” and will start alongside Kevin Harvick, who qualified second Saturday with a fast lap of 185.770 mph.

Only the top-two qualifiers from Saturday assured themselves a position in the Feb. 17 season opener. The rest of the field will be set in several different ways. Positions 3-30 will be determined by the top-14 finishing positions (minus the race pole sitters) in the two 125-mile qualifying races on Thursday.

Positions 31-36 will then be set by the next five fastest times during all qualifying sessions. Positions 37-43 will be awarded by provisionals.

Johnson became the first rookie since Mike Skinner (1997) to win the Daytona 500 pole. Loy Allen was the only other rookie to take the race’s top starting spot, in 1994.

The top two starters in this year’s Daytona 500 have exactly zero career Daytona 500 starts. That’s right, zero. Harvick ran every race last year in the Winston Cup Series, with the exception of the Daytona 500, the race in which his predecessor, Dale Earnhardt, was tragically killed.

Jeff Gordon was third on Saturday (185.491 mph), followed by Robert Pressley (185.273), Ward Burton (184.426), Robby Gordon (184.362), Terry Labonte (184.264), 2001 Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip (184.188), 2001 pole winner Bill Elliott (184.173) and Jeff Green (183.969).

Johnson is in his first season driving the No. 48 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports, a car co-owned by four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon. He has become Johnson’s protégé, and winning the pole for the Daytona 500 is a good way to get his full-time Winston Cup career started.

“I’ll tell ya, I really wasn’t expecting Jimmie to run that fast of a lap,” Gordon said. “I’m so proud of him and I’m so proud of all the guys at Hendrick Motorsports in the way that they’ve prepared these cars. They’ve worked extremely hard, and it showed during testing and it’s really shown here during qualifying.

“I really like the way Jimmie uses his head. I like the way he handles himself on and off the track. He really makes for a great teammate for us at Hendrick Motorsports.”

Johnson’s first lap was 183.78 mph, and the car wiggled coming out of Turn 4 on his second lap, making the lap that much more surprising.

“That was awesome,” Johnson said of his first Daytona 500 qualifying lap. “I was a little surprised that we were able to run that quick, especially since the car almost turned sideways coming off of (Turn) Four. I just about lost it. But you can’t be too upset about a lap like that.”

Johnson turned the fastest lap during Winston Cup practice on Friday at 185.033 mph. Gordon was second at 184.506 mph.

Because he has no points from last year to rely on to take a provisional, Johnson said he and his team haven't been able to afford to "sandbag" during any of the test or practice sessions prior to qualifying.

"We pretty much showed our hand from the get go and did everything we could to get as much speed was we could," Johnson said. "We didn't know really what else to do other than just go all out.

"I'll tell ya I was pretty nervous since I was the fourth guy out, too. I chewed two packs of gum and wore out the soles of my shoes during the two and a half hours between my run and the time it was over. It was excruciating, but well worth it."

Due to his commitment as reigning Busch Series champion, Harvick wasn’t able to test at Daytona in January. No matter, Harvick said, he knew he and his team would be ready to qualify.

“We knew we had a good car,” said Harvick, the 2001 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year. “We really didn’t feel the need to come down here and practice. We had plenty of time to figure out what’s going on. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be better right now and it shows on the track.”

Both Johnson and Harvick joked about their inexperience in the Daytona during their post-qualifying press conferences.

"I just hope there's not a big wreck," Harvick said with a laugh. "But seriously, we're both with two of the premiere organizations in Winston Cup, and that's why we're up front. We're just along for the ride."

"It should be one helluva wreck, shouldn't it?" Johnson joked. "With Jeff behind me, if he ends up in front of me quickly, that won't be such a bad thing. I can ride around behind him and learn a lot from him next Sunday. It should be a lot of fun."

Jeff Gordon, a former two-time winner of the Daytona 500, should have a nice view from near the front of the pack when the green flag drops next Sunday, barring anything unexpected in his 125-mile qualifying race on Thursday.

"We're really happy with the effort by the DuPont Chevrolet team," Gordon said. "The guys worked really hard over the winter and it's nice to see the results. We got a solid lap, and we ended up in the Top 5. That's what we were really hoping for."

Dave Marcis, who’ll retire after a long Winston Cup career following Speedweeks activities, turned a lap of 183.258 mph, good enough for 22nd-fastest. Should he make the race, it would be his 33rd Daytona 500 start and would set a record, a mark he now holds with Richard Petty.

“It would mean an awful lot to me to be in it,” Marcis said. “It’s a great honor to be able to participate in this race, and I sure would love for that to happen for one last time. I started my career in 1968 right here at Daytona, and I hope it will end here next weekend.”

The Roush Racing contingency had a less than admirable day. Jeff Burton had the best speed among the five Roush cars, winding up 26th fastest at 183.132 mph. Mark Martin was 33rd best at 182.286, rookie Greg Biffle was 38th (182.061), Kurt Busch was 43rd (181.474) and Matt Kenseth was 48th (179.968).

Jimmy Spencer, touted by many as a Top 10 contender in 2002, ended up 44th fastest Saturday. Ryan Newman, who has been known for his great qualifying efforts since entering NASCAR's elite divisions, qualified 35th fastest, while teammate Rusty Wallace was 32nd.

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