DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Richard Childress locked Jeff Burton in a bearhug and didn’t want to let go.
The NASCAR Nextel Cup team owner made a big financial and emotional investment during the winter to get his team back to the sport’s top echelon. The changes paid their first dividend Sunday, with Burton putting his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on the pole for the Daytona 500.
“It’s big,” said Burton, who hadn’t won a pole in more than five years. “Hopefully, it’s another sign that this team is getting ready to turn things around.”
Childress had one of the strongest teams in the sport until longtime driver and friend Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500. Kevin Harvick had a good season for RCR after replacing Earnhardt the following week at Rockingham, but the team has struggled in the years since.
Childress was determined to turn things around, making numerous personnel changes and radically improving the team’s equipment since the end of the 2005 season. This was the first big test.
“Yeah, it’s emotional,” Childress said. “We’ve struggled for the last few years. We’ve got to put it all together and we’ve got to start winning.”
Burton outran 57 other competitors to earn the top starting spot for the Feb. 19 race, his third career pole and first since the fall 2000 race in Richmond, when he was driving for Roush Racing.
His fast lap of 189.151 mph on a windy, chilly day at Daytona International Speedway was the fastest qualifying run on the 2.5-mile, high-banked oval since Dale Jarrett’s 191.091 in 2000.
Three-time and defending Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, one of the last drivers to take to the track on the windy afternoon, came close to knocking Burton’s Chevrolet off the top spot with a lap of 188.877 in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Burton’s success in Sunday’s qualifying came as no surprise to the pole winner.
“After we tested down here (in January), I went home and told my wife, ‘You know, we have a shot at the pole in Daytona.’ She said I was crazy,” said Burton, whose only victory at Daytona came in the July race in 2000. “But we were a little lucky, too. We caught the wind just right.”
Only the top two qualifiers locked in starting positions in the 500. The rest of qualifying results are used to set the lineups for Thursday’s two 150-mile qualifying races.
The top 35 teams in last year’s standings are guaranteed starting positions in the race, leaving just eight positions for the rest of the entries. The two top-finishing nonqualified drivers from each of the Thursday’s races will make the field, along with the fastest remaining drivers from Sunday’s time trials.
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