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
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
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
"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."