Gilliland, Rudd power Yates Racing to front row
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Robert Yates Racing went from skid row to the front row, emerging from the darkest season in team history to take the Daytona 500 spotlight.
At least for a week.
He lost his drivers, a sponsor and both of his crew chiefs in a tumultuous year that saw the once-proud team collapse to the point that Yates was convinced he was dying. But just like a true racer, the car owner refused to close shop and fought to keep the family business on the track.
He handed the keys to his two cars to Gilliland, an unproven rookie, and Rudd, the Iron Man of NASCAR who spent last year mowing the 30 acres of grass on his North Carolina farm.
They proved Sunday that there's life in this Yates team, after all.
Gilliland turned a lap of 186.320 mph to win the pole, and Rudd was right behind at 185.609 to put themselves on the front row for the season-opening Daytona 500 next Sunday.
"It's like a dream that I'm afraid to wake up from," said Gilliland, coming off Saturday night's second-place finish in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout.
Gilliland and Rudd were the only two drivers to lock down their starting spots under a complicated qualifying procedure for NASCAR's biggest event of the year that was marred when Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne's cars failed inspection and Michael Waltrip's was impounded because of a suspicious part.
It leaves eight other spots to fill, and 26 drivers are vying for them. Dale Jarrett is guaranteed one of them by virtue of the past champions provisional, as are the three fastest drivers in qualifying from that group. That caveat promised Boris Said, Sterling Marlin and Johnny Sauter spots in the race.
Toyota, which is making its Nextel Cup debut this season, had a horrendous qualifying effort and will need brilliant qualifying races to get the bulk of its Camrys into the field.
Jarrett is in, along with Dave Blaney, who earned a berth because of his 2006 standings. But the rest of the bunch struggled, including Michael Waltrip, whose intake manifold was confiscated after early inspection because of a questionable substance inside the part.
Stremme ended up third and Montoya was fourth, but teammate Reed Sorenson was a disappointing 44th after blowing a battery in his car on his second qualifying lap. Still, it was a radical improvement for the Chip Ganassi Racing team, which is looking to Montoya to help jump-start a program that hasn't won a Cup race since 2002.
"I think it really shows how far Chip Ganassi Racing has come," Montoya said. "I think the engine program has come a long way. It's just nice to see that we've got a lot of potential."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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