DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Team owner Richard Childress knew expansion was the only way to keep up with the multi-car powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, Roush and Yates Racing teams.
With seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt mired in a career-worst 42-race winless streak and 40-year-old rookie Mike Skinner taking his lumps in his first full Winston Cup season, Childress had little to show for his two-car effort, until Thursday.
Under cloudless skies and searing temperatures, Skinner and Earnhardt justified Childress' decision, sweeping the front row for Saturday's 39th running of the Pepsi 400.
"When we first talked about a two-car team we just wanted to give both of them equal equipment," Childress said. "I think (Thursday) was as close as you could get it. It's great to be on the front row.
"By having both teams, we were able to do what we did today."
Skinner, the first to qualify, duplicated his Daytona 500 pole-winning effort by setting the days standard with a fast lap of 189.777 mph in his No.31 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. He is the first driver since Sterling Marlin (1992) to capture both Daytona poles in a season, a feat that's been accomplished 11 times, but never before by a rookie.
"I never like to go out first," Skinner said. "Qualifying puts a lot of age on me anyway. You go out first and it's that much longer you have to sit there and wait and see how you're going to do."
Skinner escaped the 95-degree heat - temperatures soared to 130 on the track - in the air-conditioned drivers lounge while 44 drivers took a shot at his standard.
"I figured (Jeff) Gordon and maybe a couple of others would pick up a little more and beat that lap," he said. "I got out of the car and saw that cloud cover and I said, `Yeah, that's not going to be the pole, but if the cloud goes the other way we could have a shot at the top three.' It worked out for us."
Earnhardt, the 40th driver to take to the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway tri-oval, narrowly missed his first pole of the season with a lap at 189.761.
"We weren't that fast in practice, but that was a good run," Earnhardt said. "We're ready for the race ... I've been down in the Bahamas fishing and thinking about it a little bit. We're looking forward to the second half of the season."
Considering the recent performances of his two teams - Skinner has finished 31st or worse in his last three races and Earnhardt has just one top-five finish this season - Childress was obviously pleased.
"You can be off in one area and you may have a 10th place car," Childress said. "Today in Winston Cup racing, that fence is so narrow. If you step a little bit to one side you may be 20th instead of 10th. It's that close."
The Childress operation managed to maintain its balance yesterday despite some pushing from Gordon, John Andretti and Jimmy Spencer.
"I knew Mike Skinner put a great lap out there and I knew it would be close," said Gordon, the 10th driver to make a run at Skinner's standard. "By looking at my tachometer I thought we might have gotten him, but when I looked at the scoreboard, I knew I was second."
Gordon, who sat on the pole here last July, qualified fourth at 189.358. It was a satisfying effort for the points leader, who won the Daytona 500 but was forced to put that car on display at Daytona USA.
"We came down here and tested this Monte Carlo and it paid off for us," said Gordon, who tested at the 2.5-mile tri-oval three weeks ago. "I ran a real wide lap on that first lap trying to get the car up to speed. We knew our first lap wouldn't be as good, but we made it up on the second lap; we just didn't make it up enough."
John Andretti, one of the last to qualify, was the swiftest Ford (189.422) and starts third alongside Gordon. Jimmy Spencer (189.004) and Rusty Wallace (188.853) make up an all-Thunderbird third row.
Defending champion Sterling Marlin failed to make a qualifying lap, driving directly to the garage after aborting his second attempt. He will either requalify today (1 p.m.) or use a provisional to get into Saturday's field of the 38 fastest cars, plus as many as four provisional starters.
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