DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It has been an awfully long time since Jeff Burton had a full field in his rearview mirror, but the veteran driver of 403 Nextel Cup races will get that look Sunday in the Daytona 500.
Burton won the pole for the biggest race of the season - his first pole in more than five years - in yesterday's qualifying at Daytona International Speedway. Burton, whose last win on the Cup circuit came in 2001 at Phoenix and whose last pole was in 2000 at Richmond, posted a lap of 189.151 mph in his Monte Carlo.
"This is big, both for me and for this Richard Childress team," Burton said.
"We've gone through a lot, and it has been an exceptionally frustrating time. It feels so good to put this car out front for the Daytona 500."
Burton joined Childress midway through the 2004 season, when the once dominant team was still staggered by the loss of its star, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died in a crash here in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Burton said the transition was painful, but the process helped put him in a fast car for yesterday's qualifying.
"I feel really good about what we've done to prepare for this year, from 18 months ago to where this company is today. It doesn't even look like the same company," Burton said.
"We've looked at every single thing as to how we can make this thing better. I knew we were in a rebuilding period, and I accepted that. But now it's time to go. This is just one qualifying run out of a long year of racing ahead of us, but I think we have things in place to make huge strides in the right direction."
Burton's run knocked Jimmie Johnson out of the top qualifying spot, and Jeff Gordon eventually claimed the outside on the front row next to Burton.
Yesterday's qualifying format for Sunday's 500 locked in only those two positions. The rest of the field for the Daytona 500 will be determined by speed in the Gatorade Duel 150 races on Thursday.
Burton said he got an assist from the wind on the breezy and unseasonably cool day at the speedway, where the high reached only 52 degrees.
"We caught a lucky break coming out, too," Burton said. "It had been pretty windy all day, but none of the flags were blowing down the straightaways when we went out. I knew we had a chance when I saw that. There's nothing you can do to control the wind, but it just played into our hands."
FORD FUSION: Yesterday's qualifying runs at Daytona International Speedway seemed to close the door on any speculation over how the Ford Fusions of Robert Yates Racing would perform when Yates teammates Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler posted the third and fourth fastest times, respectively.
Two Chevys are parked on the front row, in the only positions locked in by the qualifying session, but the Yates cars followed up a strong showing in Saturday's practice session with some fast numbers.
"I'm extremely happy," Jarrett said. "We were actually faster than I thought that we could go with this car, but the guys worked extremely hard with it to be able to make it go fast. My biggest objective is to get something that I can drive and be competitive with for the 500, so hopefully we have a great package for next Sunday."
FAST WORDS: When asked to analyze the complex set of factors involved in winning the Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick gave his best assessment.
"Fast cars. That's what it all boils down to," Harvick said. "I believe our car will be good. But these races, to be fast on these race tracks, you have to have fast cars."