DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. &
Another day, another Hendrick Motorsports car on top.
First, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. showing the world Saturday night he was back on track with a dominating victory in a 70-lap exhibition race.
Then, less than 24 hours later, reigning NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson added another notch to the Hendrick belt when he won the pole for next Sunday's Daytona 500.
"It's always neat to get down here and get a win, but the pole is something the guys work for all winter long," said team owner Rick Hendrick, who also has four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears in his powerful lineup.
Johnson, who won his second straight series title last year in a tough battle with Gordon, welcomes the addition of Earnhardt to the Hendrick stable and said rivalry within a team can be a powerful weapon.
"I think we've really used the rivalry between the cars in a positive way," Johnson said. "When we're outrun by one of our teammates, we know what they have versus what we have. So we're able to bring our car to that spot and try to beat them. And then they now and the progression starts.
"I really think last year we saw it in the Chase more than anything. The notebooks were open, we were all honest and true about where are cars were, what we were doing, and we brought the best out of each other and I feel took HMS to a new level and a higher level."
Johnson, trying to match Cale Yarborough's record three straight series championships, said the goal is to keep ratcheting up the competition on the team, particularly with the addition of Earnhardt.
"I feel that the way we all have meshed together with the addition of the 88 car and all the people and everybody involved, that we're further ahead than where we were at the end of last year," Johnson said. "And I'm very excited about the year to come for all of us."
Michael Waltrip, disgraced last year at Daytona when his then-new team was caught in the post-qualifying inspection using an illegal fuel additive in his Toyota, also had a great run Sunday, taking the outside pole.
Only the top two qualifiers locked in starting positions for the 500.
For Johnson, Sunday's post-qualifying press conference was just one of numerous positive moments he has had at racetracks over the past few years. On the other hand, two-time Daytona winner Waltrip vividly recalled the sad, emotional moments when he faced the media a year ago after his team was discovered cheating and how he struggled throughout the season, at one point failing to qualify for 10 straight races.
"I'm still very emotional, but for obviously very drastically different reasons," Waltrip said. "Now I'm in here a year later and I'm the opposite; I'm happy. I still want to cry, but I'm happy.
"We've survived and we've been able to get our foundations steadied up. During the time when we were getting our business squared away, our cars were getting better. I think that we are building a foundation here for a really solid year."
David Reutimann, Waltrip's teammate and employee, qualified third, meaning he, too, will be in the big race for sure.
"It's certainly something we're very proud of," Waltrip said. "We've worked very hard over the last three months with our testing. We noticed at each test that our cars were faster than they've ever been."
The top 35 drivers from last season's car owners points are guaranteed a starting spot in the 43-car field and Waltrip and Reutimann were among 18 drivers who began the day competing for the few remaining positions.
The rest of the starting field will be determined Thursday in two 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.
Johnson now has 14 career poles and previously won the pole here in 2002. He also won the Daytona 500 in 2006.
He had to drive a backup car, one of his team's short track entries, in the Budweiser Shootout after a crash in practice on Friday. Johnson called it "a brick" before going out and nearly winning Saturday night's race.
Johnson was third in that race, with Gordon and Mears fourth and sixth. On Sunday, Mears qualified sixth, three-time 500 winner Gordon was 10th and Earnhardt 15th.
The car Johnson drove Sunday was designed to be run on the 2.5-mile, high-banked Daytona oval, and he couldn't have been happier with it.
"Last night, we had a great race, but I really look forward to what this car can do in the Daytona 500," Johnson said after winning the pole.
Johnson's qualifying speed was 187.075 mph, with Waltrip just behind at 186.734.
Besides the top 35 in owner points, the top two non-guaranteed drivers from each of the qualifying races will make the starting field, along with the three fastest non-qualified drivers from Sunday and the most recent former Cup champion not already in the race.
Joe Nemechek and Reutimann were among the drivers who had to qualify made it, running third and fourth.
One person particularly impressed by the performance of Waltrip and Reutimann was Lee White, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development, which saw all of its teams struggle just to make races in 2007, the Japanese automaker's inaugural season in the Cup series.
Despite being disappointed that a Camry didn't win the pole, White said, "A year ago, and not only a year ago, but through the first half of the season, these guys were scrambling to get out of bed in the morning.
"We're a company that takes baby steps, but they're a team that has taken great strides."
Johnson wins second Daytona 500 pole
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. &