Busch regulars top trials

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Aric Almirola, Jason Leffler and Jon Wood, all Busch Series regulars, struck a blow against the invasion of Nextel Cup drivers Friday in qualifying for the Orbitz 300.


Now comes the difficult part: keeping that advantage in today's race.

Almirola won the pole Friday with a lap of 183.741 mph in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. He's part of the driver development program at Joe Gibbs Racing, the same program that produced Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin.

The car, Almirola said, was the real star of qualifying.

"This car sat on the pole for all three (restrictor plate) races last year," he said. "It has nothing to do with the driver. I just held it wide open and steered it around the racetrack."

Jason Leffler will start second today (1 p.m., ESPN2). His Toyota was clocked at 183.023 mph, and Wood's Ford was third at 183.531.

"Our Toyota is quick and fast," Leffler said. "Hopefully it can hang in there. Obviously there's going to be a lot of trouble (today), but if we can stay out of that and be there at the end, it may put us in position to win. We'll be in good shape."

Friday's time trials were a rare show of force by the junior circuit in a series dominated by Nextel Cup crossovers.

The real test will come today when they try to fend off the challenge of 24 Nextel Cup regulars, especially since Cup drivers have won the past five season-openers at Daytona and 33 of 35 races last year.

"Am I concerned (about starting on the pole)? No. Am I nervous? Of course. I think every race car driver in their beginning stages of racing in a different series you definitely get butterflies," Almirola said. "I'm sure I won't get much sleep and I'm sure I'll be a little nervous. I think it just comes with the territory."

The top three won't have to look far to find challenges from the more experienced Cup drivers. Martin Truex Jr., now a full-time Cup driver, is the last Busch regular to win at Daytona. That came in July 2005. His Chevrolet is fourth on the grid.

Almirola will be making his first career start on the 2.5-mile tri-oval.

"When we take the green (today), I mean I'm a rookie," he said. "But I'm no different than anybody else - I'm a race car driver. So I'm going to race hard and I'm going to go out there and do the best I can. Whatever happens, happens."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart have combined to win the past five season-openers for the Busch Series. They are in today's lineup - Earnhardt Jr. in 20th; Stewart in 38th.

Two other Orbitz 300 winners are also in the field: Matt Kenseth in 13th and Joe Nemechek in 23rd.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com



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