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 Saturday, April 15
Mayfield nudges Elliott off pole
 
 ESPN.com news services

Friday, April 14
A year ago, Dale Earnhardt proved you can come from the back of the pack and go to Victory Lane. But over time, the numbers at Talladega prove that's very difficult to do.

There have been 61 Winston Cup races at Talladega -- 49 times, 80-percent of the time -- the winner has started inside the top 10. And in nine of the past 12 races on the superspeedway, the winner has started sixth or better. Earnhardt proved you don't have to start up front, but the past proves it certainly does help.

Friday the big number was 25. Teams wanted to lock themselves into a top-25 position, so starting Saturday morning when they came to the track they could focus on nothing but race set-up. Practice time could be limited by the weather.

There are significant new rule changes for the Diehard 500 and teams have had very limited practice time since arriving. It's been a very hectic schedule here at Talladega Superspeedway.

Lineup

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Bill Elliott jumped out of his car with a big grin and high-fives for his crew. It was just like the good ol' days at Talladega Superspeedway, when no one had heard of restrictor plates and Awesome Bill was the fastest man at the sport's fastest track.

But Jeremy Mayfield was in no mood for reliving the past.

Mayfield won the third NASCAR Winston Cup pole of his career Friday with a speed of 186.969 mph for Sunday's DieHard 500, denying Elliott the top spot at the track he dominated in the 1980s.

"We've been struggling all year," said Mayfield, earning his first pole of the year and in position to become the ninth winner in nine races. "To come here and sit on the pole is pretty awesome. I thought we had a pretty good car, but you never know."

Elliott drew big cheers from the crowd after posting a speed of 186.936 in a Ford Taurus. It didn't hold up, but he will start in top 10 at Talladega for the first time since 1993, his last pole-winning run at the track. He hasn't won a pole anywhere in three years.

In the pre-restrictor plate era, Elliott was the track's most dominant driver. He won six straight poles from 1985-87, setting the qualifying record of 212.809 mph for the 1987 DieHard 500.

"This has been a tough race track for me the last several years," said Elliott, who will make his 600th career start. "All I had to do was sit there and hold it wide open. If it goes, it goes. If it don't, it don't."

No one was going all that fast after NASCAR imposed a new restrictor plate to hold down speeds at the 2.66-mile trioval.

Mayfield, in a Ford, was the slowest pole winner since David Pearson started up front for the 1974 Winston 500 at 184.926 mph. In fact, Mayfield was slower than Mark Martin's winning speed for the 1997 Winston 500, when he set a record for a 500-mile race with a caution-free 188.354.

A year ago, Ken Schrader won the DieHard pole at 197.765.

"We call it slow, but we're still running pretty fast out there," Mayfield said. "It'll be interesting."

Mayfield, ninth in the Winston Cup points after eight races, had the fastest car in practice sessions earlier in the day, then backed it up during his two laps around the track.

The qualifying session, delayed two hours by morning rain, was completed in eerie darkness at the unlighted track. The cars were illuminated on the frontstretch by faint lights from the massive grandstands, then disappeared into the night on the backstretch. But the drivers didn't seem to have any problems.

"If we were running 210 mph, it might have been different," said Dale Jarrett, who was third in a Ford at 186.936. "But at the speeds we're running, it's OK."

Jarrett was followed by Dale Earnhardt (186.518), Mark Martin (186.354) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (186.173).

The senior Earnhardt put up one of the best times of the day, even though his Chevrolet Monte Carlo failed inspection prior to qualifying. His team had to cut off about a third of the car and readjust the width of the entire rear section.

"The guys just kept working," said Earnhardt, who arrived a little late for practice after a turkey hunting trip in neighboring Georgia in the morning. "But the biggest thing I'm worried about is drafting and racing. That's what we're going to work on."

Even with a car held together by Bondo, Earnhardt is a force to be reckoned with in the race. He is the most successful driver in Talladega history, sweeping last year's races and winning nine Winston Cup events at the Alabama track.

Martin knocked nine-tenths of a second off his time from the first to second lap, winding up fourth in a Taurus.

"I ran a bad line that first lap," he said. "That (second lap) was all car. I didn't have anything to do with that."

Burton was scheduled to go out last but shut down his car because of an engine problem. He said it had nothing to do with the darkness.

"You basically run around here with your eyes closed anyway," Burton quipped.

The top 25 positions were decided in the first round of qualifying.

Missing the cut was season points leader Bobby Labonte, who had an engine problem and finished 46th out of 48 cars. Also failing to qualify in the top 25 were Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Terry Labonte and Jeff Burton, all ranked among the top 12.

"We're real disappointed in that," said Gordon, whose 184.136 ranked 34th. "We were a lot faster than that earlier in the day. It's a real shame."

After Saturday's second-round qualifying, Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Ken Schrader, Matt Kenseth and Darrell Waltrip will all start at the back of the grid with provisionals. Kenny Wallace had the best speed Saturday at 185.344 mph in a Chevrolet. Jeff Gordon also had a poor session and will start 36th.

Gordon won here in 1996, his lone triumph at the superspeedway. Last week he ended a 12-race streak without a top-five finish with a fourth place showing at Martinsville.

The Diehard 500 is the ninth of 34 races on the Winston Cup circuit and features a total purse of more than $2.9 million. The race will be televised by ABC on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

 


ALSO SEE
Notebook: Labonte loses out on second chance

Yocum: First for these five could come at Talladega

Kernan: Talladega should be good show

Smaller plates mean bigger challenges for teams at Talladega

Weber: Yates makes Jarrett, Rudd tough at Talladega

Furr: Talladega is no Martinsville



AUDIO/VIDEO
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 Jeremy Mayfield wins the pole for Sunday's DieHard 500.
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RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Jeremy Mayfield thanks his crew for their hard work.
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RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

audio
 Some hard work after Daytona has Bill Elliott qualifying 2nd.
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RealAudio: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6

 Dale Earnhardt got through some car troubles and ended up 4th.
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RealAudio: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6

 Jeremy Mayfield is glad to be sitting on the pole at Talladega.
wav: 60 k
RealAudio: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6