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Johnson wins pole for Daytona 500; Waltrip also on front row

2/11/2008 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut
just keeps on rolling.

Reigning NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson won his second Daytona
500 pole less than 24 hours after new Hendrick teammate Dale
Earnhardt Jr.
took the checkered flag in the non-points Budweiser
Shootout.

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.

Johnson was third in that race, with fellow Hendrick drivers
Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears fourth and sixth. On Sunday, Mears
qualified sixth, three-time 500 winner Gordon was 10th and
Earnhardt 15th.

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."