Yates puts both cars on front row for Daytona 500

Monday, February 12th 2007, 6:28 am
By: News On 6

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ It seemed certain at times last season that Robert Yates Racing was going to close its doors.

The once-proud NASCAR team had hit rock bottom, and owners Robert and Doug Yates couldn't stand coming to the race track anymore.

But that seemed ages ago on Sunday after David Gilliland and Ricky Rudd put Yates cars on the front row for the Daytona 500.

``Robert has got a little bit of a bounce in his step again because he has a program that is working, it is clicking,'' Rudd said.

It was far from working last season, when Yates lost his drivers, a sponsor and both of his crew chiefs in a tumultuous year that featured the team collapsing 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.

``We push each other pretty hard, and at one point in the year, I felt like I had pushed him a little bit too much and it was pretty stressful,'' Doug Yates said. ``When your Dad has some health issues based off of his job, it's pretty tough on you. But it's just the way we're wired, we want to win.

``This is our golf game, this is our whole life. When it doesn't go well, it's pretty miserable.''

That's why Sunday was so special.

Gilliland, an unproven rookie, and Rudd, the ``Iron Man'' of NASCAR who spent last year out of racing and mowing the 30 acres of grass on his North Carolina farm, proved that there's life in this Yates team, after all.

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.

The top 35 drivers from 2006 are assured a spot in the 500, but their starting position will be determined by a pair of qualifying races Thursday. 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 the 2006 standings. But the rest of the bunch struggled, including Waltrip, whose intake manifold was confiscated at the start of the day because inspectors found a questionable substance inside the part.

Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, was 24th in qualifying and his Camry was later impounded.

``There's nothing wrong with it,'' Waltrip insisted. ``We just had an oil problem of some sort.''

David Reutimann was the best of the Toyota bunch at 14th, and was followed by Jeremy Mayfield (15th), Mike Skinner (17th), Waltrip, Blaney (37th), A.J. Allmendinger (38th), Brian Vickers (43rd) and Jarrett (48th).

Juan Pablo Montoya flirted with the front row, putting his new No. 42 Dodge in the second spot only to be bumped from it moments later by teammate David Stremme.

Stremme ended up third and Montoya was fourth, but teammate Reed Sorenson was a disappointing 42nd 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 since 2002.

``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.''

But the day belonged to Yates, who won the Daytona 500 pole for the fifth time in his career. Davey Allison won the first in 1992, then Jarrett grabbed it in 1995, 2000 and 2005.