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NASCAR Blaney speeds to first career pole; Sunday's race will be the real test



Published: Tue, February 25, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Johnny Benson qualified second around Rockingham's high-banked oval.

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. (AP) -- Dave Blaney of Hartford won the first pole of his career Friday when most teams chose not to bother with qualifying on a cold, wet day at North Carolina Speedway.

Practice and qualifying were delayed by rain, and with the possibility of more bad weather before the Subway 400 on Sunday, most teams spent Friday's only practice session working on race setups.

It made for lackluster qualifying runs, with Blaney taking the top spot by turning a lap in the No. 77 Ford at 154.683 mph.

"That's pretty cool," Blaney said. "But Sunday is when it really counts, and that would be really cool."

Drought over

It was Blaney's first pole in 113 Winston Cup starts. His previous best starting spot was third, last year in Richmond, Va.

"We were a little bit scared coming in because we had a brand new car that we had never tested or anything," Blaney said. "We had a lot of different stuff than we're used to running."

Johnny Benson, who scored his only Winston Cup victory here last November, qualified second in a Pontiac by turning a lap of 154.553 around Rockingham's high-banked, 1.017-mile oval.

Mark Martin qualified third in the same Ford that finished second here last year. Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott qualified fourth and fifth in Dodges.

Ricky Craven was sixth in a Pontiac, and was followed by rookie Jamie McMurray, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett.

Bobby Labonte was the highest-qualifying Chevrolet at 10th, a shocking dropoff after the Monte Carlos dominated last week at Daytona.

Martin, admittedly surprised to see the Chevys struggling, said he was confident the Monte Carlos would give his Ford a strong challenge Sunday.

"It may just be a coincidence, the weekend is not over with yet," Martin said. "But, yeah, I am sweating that. That crowd is awfully happy -- a lot happier with the cars than they were last year, so that is something I'm watching and am concerned about."

Weather a factor

For the second straight week, weather was a major factor in what teams did.

The season-opening Daytona 500 was cut short 91 laps from the finish by rain, forcing teams to play guessing games over the course of the race as to when it might end.

They were doing it again Friday after morning rain pushed the schedule back so far that it was almost dark when the final cars ran their qualifying laps.

As crews sat idle in their garage stalls during the morning, most made the decision to swap their setups from qualifying trim into race mode just in case today's practice session is washed away.

"I'll just say that not many people worked that hard on qualifying today," Martin said. "This is not a typical day and this is one of the greatest race tracks there is for racing and passing.

"So I don't think anyone was concerned about having to start in the back here."

That's where most of the top names will begin the race Sunday.

Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip will start 22nd, four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon 23rd, and series champion Tony Stewart 33rd.

Fuel line foul-up

Some cars had problems that ruined their qualifying efforts.

Ryan Newman had the fastest speed in the hour of Winston Cup practice, then qualified 21st because a fuel line came off the carburetor in his car on his first lap.

"Somebody missed something," he said. "It was laying on the intake manifold. It's frustrating because I think we had a real good shot at the pole."

Jerry Nadeau ran 153.035 on the first of his two qualifying laps, but lost control of his Pontiac on the second and spun out. He kept the car off the wall and will start 24th.

Jeff Burton, meanwhile, failed to complete a qualifying lap, hitting the wall with his car after a spin on his warm-up lap. Burton will start 38th on a provisional Sunday.

"I honestly, really and truly cannot tell you what just happened," Burton said.




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