Johnson wins pole for Daytona 500; Waltrip also on front row
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut just keeps on rolling.
Jimmie Johnson may have won the pole for next Sunday's Daytona 500, but that doesn't exactly mean the defending Cup champ is on easy street. The last polesitter to win the Great American Race was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
Michael Waltrip, embarrassed last year at Daytona when his then-new team was caught in the post-qualifying inspection using an illegal fuel additive in his Toyota, also had a great run Sunday, taking the outside pole.
Only the top two qualifiers locked in starting positions for next week's 50th running of the Daytona 500.
Asked if this makes him the favorite to win the 500, Johnson said, "We have to wait until we get out in the draft and see how these cars work. That's really a true test of these cars. We know we have the fastest single car."
For Johnson, Sunday's postqualifying news conference was just one of numerous positive moments he has had at racetracks over the past few years. On the other hand, two-time Daytona winner Waltrip vividly recalled the sad, emotional moments when he faced the media a year ago after his team was discovered cheating and how he struggled throughout the season, at one point failing to qualify for 10 straight races.
"I'm still very emotional, but for obviously very drastically different reasons," Waltrip said. "Now I'm in here a year later and I'm the opposite; I'm happy. I still want to cry, but I'm happy.
"We've survived and we've been able to get our foundations steadied up. During the time when we were getting our business squared away, our cars were getting better. I think that we are building a foundation here for a really solid year."
David Reutimann, Waltrip's teammate and employee, qualified third, meaning he, too, will be in the big race for sure.
"It's certainly something we're very proud of," Waltrip said. "We've worked very hard over the last three months with our testing. We noticed at each test that our cars were faster than they've ever been."
The top 35 drivers from last season's car owners points are guaranteed a starting spot in the 43-car field and Waltrip and Reutimann were among 18 drivers who began the day competing for the few remaining positions.
The rest of the starting field will be determined Thursday in two 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.
Johnson, hoping to join Cale Yarborough as the stock car sport's only drivers to win three consecutive Cup titles, previously won the pole here in 2002 and won the race in 2006.
He had to drive a backup car, one of his team's short track entries, in the Shootout after a crash in practice on Friday. Johnson called it "a brick" before going out and nearly winning Saturday night's race.
The car Johnson drove Sunday was designed to be run on the 2.5-mile, high-banked Daytona oval, and he couldn't have been happier with it.
"Last night, we had a great race, but I really look forward to what this car can do in the Daytona 500," Johnson said after winning the pole.
Johnson's qualifying speed was 187.075 mph, with Waltrip just behind at 186.734.
Besides the top 35 in owner points, the top two non-guaranteed drivers from each of the qualifying races will make the starting field, along with the three fastest non-qualified drivers from Sunday and the most recent former Cup champion not already in the race.
Joe Nemechek and Reutimann were among the drivers who had to qualify made it, running third and fourth.
One person particularly impressed by the performance of Waltrip and Reutimann was Lee White, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development, which saw all of its teams struggle just to make races in 2007, the Japanese automaker's inaugural season in the Cup series.
Despite being disappointed that a Camry didn't win the pole, White said, "A year ago, and not only a year ago, but through the first half of the season, these guys were scrambling to get out of bed in the morning.
"We're a company that takes baby steps, but they're a team that has taken great strides."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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