Kvapil takes first Sprint Cup pole at Talladega; DEI cars strong
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- A pair of once-mighty teams returned to the top of the Talladega Superspeedway leaderboard with very different things to prove.
Travis Kvapil won the pole Saturday to show Yates Racing is on an upswing after several lean years, and Dale Earnhardt Inc. had a strong qualifying day to counter rumblings that the team is in trouble.
Kvapil turned a lap at 187.364 mph in his Yates Racing Ford to edge Casey Mears' lap of 187.295 in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
It was the first pole of Kvapil's career and came in his 100th start. And it was the eighth Talladega pole for a car owned by Yates, which was also the last Ford team to win at this track when Dale Jarrett grabbed a 2005 victory.
"This is a place that's really special to the Yates family and my crew chief, Todd Parrott, loves coming here," said Kvapil. "It's awful special. There are a lot of [No.] 28 fans in the Talladega area, so it's pretty cool that we can come out here and get my first pole and give those 28 fans something to cheer about."
There's also a lot of Earnhardt fans in the area, and the loyal crowd has had little to cheer about since DEI reeled off six wins in seven races at Talladega from 2001 to 2004.
A slow slide began last year when Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to move to Hendrick Motorsports, and the team took another hit this week when Paul Menard said he was moving with his sponsor to Yates Racing next season. It's created a steady stream of questions about the long-term stability of the team founded by the late Dale Earnhardt.
But DEI got a huge boost when all four of its cars qualified in the top 10 for Sunday's race. Aric Almirola qualified third, Regan Smith was fourth, Menard was fifth and Martin Truex Jr. was 10th to give DEI something to celebrate.
"I think it says a great deal about our program and where we are at Dale Earnhardt Inc.," said DEI president Max Siegel. "To also put three cars inside the top five, including a pair of rookie drivers with Aric and Regan, that really says a great deal about the future of our programs and where we are headed as a company."
Qualifying at Talladega is essentially just about horsepower, and both Yates and DEI have strong engine programs.
Yates' is a well-established operation, but had fallen on hard times as the engine program became the most successful part of the organization. Technology seemed to pass the Yates' by, and Jarrett and Elliott Sadler both jumped ship and their sponsors soon followed.
Robert Yates stepped aside at the end of last season, and son, Doug, formed an alliance with Roush Fenway Racing that has kept the team afloat. What's most impressive is that Yates has done it with very limited sponsorship on Kvapil and teammate David Gilliland's cars.
In winning the pole, Kvapil hops he can attract funding to the team.
"Today is a big day in helping for 2009 and beyond for Yates Racing. Paul coming over and adding a third car, that's great," Kvapil said. "We're still trying to lock down all of our sponsors for ... next year. We're talking with a bunch of companies and we've had a bunch of interest, but to go out there and get those deals wrapped up, if you can go out and run good and run up front, that makes it a lot easier.
"So this is just a big step and hopefully will help put those packages together -- get our name out there and run up front and a lot of times those sponsor things kind of take care of themselves."
DEI has the same hopes. With just one full sponsor signed on for next year, the team wants to run four cars but needs to find the funding to secure its 2009 plans. An engine alignment with Richard Childress Racing gave DEI the horsepower it needed for qualifying, and a team-wide strong run Sunday would put a positive spotlight on the slumping team.
"It's a tough time for all the teams right now," Smith said. "I think if you look through the garage, there's probably five or six teams that have at least one car unsponsored, maybe two. That's not just directed to our company. That's going on all over the garage right now.
"We're very comfortable where we are performance-wise right now, and I feel like the cars and the company as a whole is getting better each week."
Carl Edwards was the highest-qualifying Chase driver and will start 12th, while Earnhardt was next at 15th in a backup car after a tire problem caused him to wreck in Friday's second practice.
The rest of the Chase field was: Jeff Burton (17th), points leader Jimmie Johnson (20), Greg Biffle (22), Jeff Gordon (26), Matt Kenseth (32), Tony Stewart (35), Clint Bowyer (36), Kyle Busch (40) and Kevin Harvick (42).
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press