Carl Edwards' 2011 Sprint Cup season didn't end like he wanted it to, but he said last week that he wasn't looking back and he was itching to get going in a brand new season of racing in pursuit of his first championship in NASCAR's top racing series.
Edwards is starting off the new season just as he ended the last one, in the pole position. The native son of Columbia, Mo., won the pole for Sunday's Sprint Cup season curtain-opener, the Daytona 500, in Sunday's qualifying session for the Great American Race. The driver of the No. 99 Roush-Fenway Ford will be joined on the front row at Daytona International Speedway by his teammate, Greg Biffle. Edwards started on the pole and with the lead in the Chase for the Cup standings in the final Chase race last season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but finished a disappointing second to Tony Stewart both in the season finale and for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Edwards turned in the fastest qualifying lap of the day on Sunday at 194.738 mph to earn his first pole in 14 starts at Daytona. His qualifying speed was the fastest lap for the Daytona 500 since Jeff Gordon's 195.067 13 years ago in 1999.
While Edwards will have the lead position out on the starting grid for this year's Daytona 500, another Kansas City-area driver, Clint Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., will be starting in the back of the pack in his qualifying race Thursday for Sunday's season-opening Cup race at Daytona. Sunday's qualifying session locked in the first two positions for the Daytona 500. Two more qualifying sessions on Thursday, known as the Gatorade Duel.
The Gatorade Duel is set up as two 150-mile races (60 laps each). Half of the Daytona 500 field is entered in Duel 1 and the remaining cars run in Duel 2. The order of finish in the two qualifying races determines the starting order for the rest of the field (positions three through 43). The way the drivers finish in the Duel group 1 on Thursday will fill out the odd-numbered positions in the starting field, and the even-numbered starting spots will be determined by how the cars finish in the Duel 2 race.
Bowyer will start at the back of the field in the Duel 2 qualifying lineup. Although their front-row starting spots are assured for the Daytona 500, Edwards and Biffle will also participate in the Gatorade Duel, starting from the pole position in backup cars in the two qualifying sessions. Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota that he is driving this season for his new team, Michael Waltrip Racing, was determined to be too low and failed a postqualifying inspection on Sunday. The No. 15 team was given two chances to go through the inspection and did not meet the required specifications either time.
Asked how it felt to be starting the Great American Race on Sunday as the polesitter, Edwards said, "It feels nice to pick up right where we left off (last season). It seems like every media question and all anybody says is, ‘How great would it have been to have one more point (which would have won him the 2011 Sprint Cup outright), and how did you deal with that this offseason?'
"This shows everyone that everybody at Roush-Fenway went back and worked hard and kept their heads down and dug," he said, "and I thank everybody who builds these race cars for not letting the disappointment of not winning that championship slow us down but, instead, giving us the real motivation."
Edwards says that his Roush-Fenway team has learned the last couple of years the importance of qualifying because it is harder to pass cars on the track. "We've all agreed that we need to focus more on qualifying," he said.
From the outcome of Sunday's Daytona 500 qualifying runs, it appears everyone on the No. 99 team took the message seriously and is on the same page.
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