TERRY RENNA / AP Enlarge
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jimmie Johnson ended the 2007 racing season by dominating the competition and winning four of the last five races - on his way to his second straight season championship.
Yesterday, Johnson started 2008 from that very familiar position - with everyone else chasing his No. 48 Lowe's Chevy.
In the qualifying for Sunday's Daytona 500, Johnson left everyone in his wake, winning the pole for the big race that traditionally kicks off the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Michael Waltrip took the second position in the front row for the 50th running of the 500. All the other starting positions in the 43-car field will be determined in Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona twin 150-mile qualifying races.
"I'm just excited to see everything we did over the off-season come together for us," Johnson said. "The car was strong right off the truck. This says a lot for the team - to come down here and show that we did not lose a thing over the off-season."
Johnson, who won the Daytona 500 in 2006, was on the pole here at Daytona International Speedway for the 2002 race as a rookie. Johnson had a fast lap of 48.109 seconds around the Daytona International Speedway, and an average speed of 187.075 mph. It was the 14th pole of his 220-race career.
Johnson's post-qualifying words had to be a concern for his competitors, when he attributed his strength to the team he shares with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I feel like we're further ahead now than we were at the end of last year," Johnson said. "The ability to continue on and not lose something reverts to the culture at Hendrick Motorsports."
Waltrip, who failed to qualify for 10 races in a row at one point last year and finished 44th in the points, said locking in on the front row for the first time at the Daytona 500 meant a lot.
Waltrip has come almost full circle from last year, recalling that his team started the year by being penalized for cheating after altering its fuel before the Daytona 500.
"It's incredible what this team accomplished," said Waltrip, who is a two-time winner of the 500. This is something we're very proud of. It's very humbling. I'm happy, but I still want to cry."
Waltrip said he felt immense pressure to succeed, given the tumultuous 2007 he experienced. He gave the credit for his 186.734 mph average speed and his 48.197 lap to his team.
"There isn't really anything the driver can do to get the pole here, but there's about a million things he can do to screw it up," Waltrip said. "They gave me a great car, and I just went out and drove it."
Johnson said he enjoys the comfortable position of knowing he can experiment in the Gatorade Duels and not have to worry about establishing a starting position. He hesitated to call his car the fastest entry in the 500.
"I feel like we're one [of the fastest], but until we get out in the draft and see these cars work, we won't know for sure," Johnson said. "We had everything aligned just right today, and we got a lot out of it. I'm really looking forward to what this car can do in the 500."
Northwest Ohio driver Sam Hornish Jr., part of a contingent of open-wheel driving stars that are making the jump into stock cars this season, had the 43rd-fastest qualifying run in yesterday's warm, sunny and breezy conditions.
Hornish, who is driving the No. 77 Dodge Charger for Penske Racing, said the pressure to post a fast time was not as great on him.
"We could obviously be happier, but the big thing for us was that we're in the race already," Hornish said.
Hornish has already been guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500 field, based on points from last season that team owner Roger Penske transferred to Hornish's car from that of teammate Kurt Busch, who already is locked in to the race as a former Sprint Cup Series champion.
"We just need to learn as much as we can," Hornish said. "We brought a car that we knew wasn't going to be great in qualifying, but it's definitely a lot better for us running in a pack. That's what we're here for, so we'll just keep our heads about us and do the best thing we can. We really look forward to the duels. That's the big thing for us this week."29.20358 -81.03941