Waltrip on the Pole at Talladega

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Michael Waltrip led a charge of "go-or-go-home" entries to the top of the grid Saturday in qualifying for the UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

The top 35 cars in NASCAR Nextel Cup owners points are guaranteed a spot in the 43-car field each week and it was the drivers who had to make it on speed and worked strictly on qualifying in Friday's practice who dominated in time trials for Sunday's race, the superspeedway debut of the Car of Tomorrow.

Waltrip, who has struggled through a generally miserable season, managed to make the race lineup for the third straight week, but only the 11th time this season, as he earned his fourth career pole and first since June 2005 at Pocono.

He turned a lap of 189.070 mph on the 2.66-mile oval, with Dave Blaney second at 188.838.

"I felt confident yesterday we would make the race," Waltrip said. "I wasn't thinking about the pole. Honestly, it's more important to me that we have all three [Michael Waltrip Racing] cars in the top eight."

All of those eight were drivers who had to qualify, including former Formula One champion and Indy 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve, making his Cup debut, and Waltrip's teammates David Reutimann and Dale Jarrett.

Rookie A.J. Allmendinger, Boris Said, Scott Riggs, Sam Hornish Jr. -- another open-wheel driver and Indy 500 winner hoping to make his Cup debut -- and Jeremy Mayfield qualified ninth, 10th, 11th, 13th and 15th, respectively, but were bumped out of the field by drivers in the top 35 in points.

It was a big day for Toyota, which has had little to crow about in its first season in Cup.

Waltrip, Blaney and defending race winner Brian Vickers swept the first three positions for Toyota and Camrys took six of the top eight spots, although Jarrett, who was eighth, will have to start 43rd under NASCAR's somewhat strange qualifying format.

Jeff Gordon, a three-time Talladega winner, including the April race this year, was 45th fastest of the 51 qualifiers and will start 34th. But he said the qualifying results weren't surprising.

"This is just what we expected because those guys who had to qualify spent their time working on speed, while we were working on race setup," the four-time Cup champion said. "They're taking the risk, putting a lot into it and we've given up some speed to get ready for the race.

"I think we'll be just fine in the race," added Gordon, who is second to reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson heading into the fourth of 10 races in the Chase for the championship.

The cars were impounded by NASCAR after qualifying and will have to start the race the way they ran Saturday.

Waltrip, who said he got plenty of drafting practice here last month in testing, wasn't concerned about that.

"I told my guys last night, 'If we get in, we'll have a chance to win,'" the two-time Daytona 500 winner said. "I think we'll definitely be ready to go."

There was a lot of focus on Villeneuve, whose only NASCAR race experience came in a Craftsman Truck event two weeks ago in Las Vegas.

Some drivers have criticized Villeneuve for making his first Cup start at Talladega, a restrictor-plate track known for huge packs of cars racing in close proximity producing multicar crashes.

Once he had made the field, though, the Canadian-born driver said his goal Sunday is "just staying out of trouble. There's been a few finger points, so we have to be even more careful."

The other 11 Chase drivers didn't have great days in qualifying, either.

Two-time champion Tony Stewart was fastest of the group at 187.057, placing him 11th on the grid. Martin Truex Jr. will start 13th, Denny Hamlin 18th, Johnson 19th, Jeff Burton 21st, Clint Bowyer 23rd, Matt Kenseth 25th, Carl Edwards 31st, Kyle Busch 36th and Kevin Harvick 37th.

The 12th Chase entry, Kurt Busch, qualified 25th but will start 41st after both his Dodge and the Ford of rookie David Ragan, who will start 42nd, were found to be too low in post-qualifying inspections.

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