Robert Yates puts both cars on front row for Daytona 500; Montoya fourth

Sunday, February 11th 2007, 2:25 pm
By: News On 6

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - 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.

David Gilliland and Ricky Rudd won the top two starting spots Sunday in qualifying for the Daytona 500, putting Yates back on the racing map after a horrendous season.

"There was a time last year when I felt like I maybe was the problem, and wasn't in love with it and really wanted to leave (racing)," Yates said. "I could have walked out of here last year.

"I want this next year to get this thing up, get the sky that was falling on us, get it up."

That dark time saw Yates lose 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. 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 out of racing and mowing the 30 acres of grass on his North Carolina farm.

They proved Sunday that there's life in this Yates team, after all.

Gilliland turned a lap of 186.320 miles an hour 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 a second-place finish in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night.

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 his 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 25th 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 15th, and was followed by Mike Skinner (18th), Waltrip, Blaney (39th), A.J. Allmendinger (40th), Brian Vickers (45th) and Jarrett (50th).

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 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 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."

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.

Although the pole means little in terms of the actual race, it puts Yates' team in the spotlight for the entire week leading up to the event - sweet redemption considering many wondered if it would even survive a disastrous 2006.

First, Jarrett bolted for Waltrip's new Toyota team, and sponsor UPS followed. Then Elliott Sadler asked out of his contract forcing Yates to essentially start from scratch in his 40th year of racing.

It had Yates so stressed out, the owner was convinced he was dying and turned to prescription medication to alleviate the stress.

"Robert, sitting there watching him . . . it was pretty sad to see how low the team had gotten," Rudd said.

And now?

"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.

Indeed it is, and it all began when Yates gambled on signing Gilliland, a West Coast racer who rocketed onto the NASCAR radar by winning a Busch race last June in an underfunded, part-time team.

It had car owners competing to sign the 30-year-old unknown, and Gilliland chose the struggling Yates team and couldn't have been more sure of his decision after Sunday.

"After some of the stuff that was said about the Yates organization last year, I'm real proud to come out real strong," Gilliland said. "Hopefully this is a sign of things to come."

Yates still needed a sponsor to keep his flagship No. 88 afloat, and he got it in December when Snickers signed onto the car. Then he coaxed Rudd to end his one-year sabbatical from racing.

"I would not have come back to work if I did not think this team was solid enough to win some races," Rudd said.