DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Carl Edwards will start the 2012 season in the spot where he needed to finish the last race in 2011 -- No. 1.
Edwards won the pole for the Daytona 500 (194.738 mph) on a gusty Sunday afternoon, taking advantage of an early slot in the qualifying line before the temperature heated up and the wind kicked up.
Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle will join Edwards on the front row, the only spots set for the 500 in the unique qualifying format.
"These are the best race cars we're ever had a Daytona," Edwards said. "Coming down here, I didn't even consider the pole a possibility. This is huge."
If only he had finished last season this way, things would be so different.
Edwards finished second to Tony Stewart in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stewart won the Cup title and Edwards fell one point short. He tied Stewart in the standings, but Stewart won the crown by winning more races -- 5-1.
That was then and this is now. Edwards will take the green flag from P1 next Sunday. So how satisfying is it to start 2012 in the No. 1 spot after falling one point short of the 2011 title?
"I think I've been asked that one-point question 4,000 times," Edwards said. "But we didn't let that disappointment slow us down. It gave us real motivation.
"So it is nice to come here and show everyone that it isn't just talk. Everybody at Roush went back to work and kept their heads down."
The pole is a nice little prize for the No. 99 Ford team, but it means almost nothing as far as chances of winning the 500. The last pole winner to go to Victory Lane in this race was Dale Jarrett 12 years ago.
How a car races in a large pack, something you'll see a lot of again next weekend, is completely different to how it races all alone on the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
However, Edwards had a strong car here one year ago, pushing Trevor Bayne to victory in the tandem-style racing.
That won't happen this time with the new rules package. Whoever is pushing at the end is going to stop pushing and try to get by the leader, as Kyle Busch did successfully against Stewart in the Bud Shootout on Saturday night.
Whatever happens next Sunday, it will be 100 times more exciting than the sleep-inducing 2½ hours of pole day. Must-see TV it isn't.
One car at a time, flat out at 190-plus mph, which looks like 19-mph on the massive Daytona track.
"Now I won't lose any sleep the next couple of nights," Bayne said. "We're in the race. That's the first mission accomplished."
Only seven of the 43 spots are up for grabs in the 500. The top 35 cars in owner points from last season have a free ride in the show. That includes Danica Patrick, thanks to points swapping rules that NASCAR tolerates.
Terry Labonte has a guaranteed spot as the most recent former Cup champion not already qualified -- if you can call 16 years ago recent.
Now I won't lose any sleep the next couple of nights. We're in the race. That's the first mission accomplished.
”-- Trevor Bayne on locking up a spot
in the Daytona 500
Three of the 13 other drivers not in the show made it in on pole day based on speed. The four remaining spots are decided in the two qualifying races on Thursday.
That's right. The qualifying races have only four qualifying spots available. Everyone else is just racing for starting position and hoping they don't wreck their car.
That's especially true for Edwards and Biffle. Getting in a wreck Thursday and going to a backup car means giving up the front row and starting in the back for the 500.
"That's one way to look at it,'' Edwards said. "The other way is I know how good our backup car is. Also, I know you can't give these other guys any advantage. If I don't race hard [Thursday] and understand how the track reacts at that time of day, I'm giving those guys something."
Edwards said he will talk to crew chief Bob Osborne to formulate his strategy for Thursday's qualifying race. Osborne wasn't in Daytona on Sunday because of the recent death of his father. Car chief Chip Bolin was on the pit box for Edwards' pole run.
"Bob built this program with steady, calculated moves,'' Bolin said. "We just tried to execute the plan, and here we are."
On the pole for the biggest event of the season.
"This is two poles in a row for us," Edwards said, who won the pole at Homestead in November. "So we picked up where we left off."
If he can pick up one more point in the process this season, maybe Edwards will end up one spot better than last year.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.