TALLADEGA, Ala. – Michael Waltrip knows what you might be thinking. The fastest cars in Saturday’s UAW-Ford 500 qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway were all outside the top 35 in car owner points. Those teams put everything they had into going fast on the track by themselves, suggesting they might have done things that won’t work so well Sunday while they’re trying to race in the draft.
Not so, Waltrip said after winning the pole – that’s right, Michael Waltrip is on the pole in his No. 55 Toyota for Sunday's race.
“You watch,” said Waltrip, who hadn’t qualified better than 11th all year and who had failed to make the show 16 times in his tribulation-filled first season as a Toyota team owner. “I will be right tomorrow. ...I told my guys last night that I believe that if we get in the race we can win the race.
“Who knows who will win, but I am very confident. Come Monday you can write that Michael’s an idiot if I am not right, but I don’t have a car that won’t be able to race.”
Waltrip’s lap at 189.070 mph earned him his fourth career pole but his first since June 2005 at Pocono.
It puts him in next year’s Budweiser Shootout at Daytona and at the front of the field at a place where he has demonstrated some aptitude. Waltrip won a race here in 2003 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and has 13 top-10 Talladega finishes.
But he has only made 10 races all year, and to hear him talking about confidence was still a little odd on a day where odd was just the rule far more than the exception.
At least Waltrip’s sense of humor is intact.
“You can tell I haven’t done well in a while,” Waltrip said as he glanced at a cell phone shortly after qualifying ended. “I’ve already got 24 messages. I don’t even think I’ve got 24 friends.”
Toyota’s struggles have been a big story all year, but five of Sunday’s top six starters will drive Camrys. One will be driven by former Indianapolis 500 and Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve, making his first career Cup start from the No. 6 position.
Unlike Waltrip, though, the Canadian-born driver isn’t predicting anything about Sunday’s race. “Qualifying is one thing,” he said, “but racing here is another.”
But in order to race, first the cars not ensured of making the show had to earn that right.
In all, the 11 fastest on Saturday were those not in the top 35 and therefore not guaranteed starting spots.
Three – A.J. Allmendinger, Boris Said and Scott Riggs – won’t race at all and Dale Jarrett, who was eighth fastest in qualifying, will start 43rd because of the way NASCAR’s qualifying rules work.
For most certainly the first time ever, the results had somebody complaining about the Toyotas being too good.
“They need to change the name of this place to Toyotadega,” Said said. “Toyota is just too fast right now.”
David Reutimann, who will start fifth behind Waltrip, Dave Blaney, Brian Vickers and Chevrolet’s Joe Nemechek, said there’s a reason Toyota teams went fast in qualifying “It wasn’t like we had a choice,” he said.
John Andretti was seventh fastest in his Dodge, and he’ll start alongside Bobby Labonte, whose lap at 187.284 mph was fastest among the top-35 cars. Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler rounded out the top 10.
The best qualifier among drivers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup was Tony Stewart, who has never won at Talladega but who has finished second six times here. Stewart ran 187.057 mph and will start 11th.
“A second place here is almost like a win,” said Stewart, who fell 117 points behind leader when he blew a tire and wrecked last weekend at Kansas. “It’s so hard to be in the right position at the right time.”
Martin Truex Jr. starts 13th and Kurt Busch would have started 18th had his lap at 186.416 mph not been disallowed because the front end of the No. 2 Dodge was too low when measured after that lap. David Ragan also had his time disallowed. Busch will start 41st and Ragan 42nd now.
Championship leader Jimmie Johnson starts 19th, one spot behind Denny Hamlin. Jeff Burton starts 21st, Clint Bowyer 23rd, Matt Kenseth 25th, Carl Edwards 31st, Jeff Gordon 36th, Kyle Busch 38th and Kevin Harvick 39th.
With Sunday’s field set, attention turns to what kind of race will break out in the car of tomorrow’s debut on this 2.66-mile track.
One driver predicted it would be “full-contact Talladega.”
Burton, who comes in 186 points behind Johnson, who leads Gordon by six and Bowyer by 14, is expecting just about anything.
“You are going to see a lot of stuff that is going to make you stand up and take notice, for sure,” Burton said.
“I don’t know what is going to happen. A lot of things could, but what I anticipate is a really tight race, with a lot of action, a lot of excitement. It is going to get really wild.
“If they drop the green flag with 20 (laps) to go or something, I can only imagine what it’s going to be like.”