CONCORD, N.C. -- The union of driver Bill Elliott and crew chief Ray Evernham officially remains a year away. Unofficially they already are a dominant force.
Elliott's passion for speed was matched Friday night with Evernham's attention to detail during pole qualifying for The Winston all-star race at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. Together, they created an effort that won the pole position.
Evernham is lending a hand in some of Elliott's set-ups. That, along with new crewmen who are finally working on the same page, not only made Elliott the fastest amid stock car racing's elite, it made a statement for the future.
"We were quick when we unloaded this morning and we ran some awful good times in the heat on old tires," Elliott said.
Qualifying for the race that doesn't count toward the Winston Cup Championship featured a pit stop for two tires and three laps around the 1.5-mile raceway. Elliott's combined time was 1-minute, 46.932 seconds.
"First of all, the guys pulled off a heck of a good stop," Elliott said. "Then, the car really ran a couple of good laps on the racetrack. Putting it all together, that's what it's all about."
The all-star race 99 p.m., TNN) is open to the 18-most recent winners on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, former all-star winners and former Winston Cup Series Champions. Elliott, who hasn't won a race since 1994, qualified as the 1988 series champion.
Two more starting spots will be awarded today to the winners of a pair of qualifying races for non-winners.
Starting second, with a combined time of 1:46.954, will be Mark Martin.
Joe Nemechek actually had the second-fastest time at 1:46.780, but he was penalized an additional three seconds by NASCAR officials for missing a lug nut on the right-rear tire. That penalty dropped him back to 14th on the grid.
The rest of the starting lineup includes: Bobby Labonte in third (1:47.002), Rusty Wallace in fourth (1:47.156), Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fifth (1:47.508), Tony Stewart in sixth (1:47.713), Dale Jarrett in seventh (1:48.143), Jeff Burton in eighth (1:48.177), Jeremy Mayfield in ninth (1:48.660), Terry Labonte in 10th (1:48.731), Jeff Gordon in 11th (1:49.345), Dale Earnhardt in 12th (1:49.355), Ward Burton in 13th (1:49.501), Nemechek in 14th (1:49.780), Michael Waltrip in 15th (1:49.973), Kenny Irwin in 16th (1:50.399), Darrell Waltrip in 17th (1:51.248) and John Andretti in 18th (1:51.653).
Andretti's time included a three-second penalty for a loose lug nut.
The qualifying format for the all-star race is just as unique as the race itself. Tonight's main event will be staged in three segments -- a pair of 30-lappers followed by a 10-lap sprint. The field will be inverted after the first 30 laps, but the depth of the inversion won't be known until the first segment is completed and a giant roulette wheel is spun.
The field will have the option to pit at the end of the second 30-lap run, but each car making a stop will lose its track position. That sets up a 10-lap sprint with cars on older tires at the front of the pack and faster cars with fresh tires at the back.
For Elliott, however, the moral victory earned by winning the pole makes the all-star weekend a success.
"It's the guys," Elliott said. "They've worked hard and put a lot of effort into this. I'm really impressed with this. When I look around this garage for a crew, I'd pick them.
"Tony Crow has brought a lot to the motor side (from Dale Jarrett's team). I don't know what I could have done any better. Everything fell together. I do really feel this is the best I've been at this race track in a long time. All the guys are pumped up right now, and one thing seems to feed off another. when you get the ball rolling, it looks easy. I really didn't expect it to be this good, this quick."
Elliott and Evernham already have decided to hire all the current crewmen on Elliott's team for next year. Elliott announced earlier this season he will give up his role as a driver/car owner in 2001 to drive one of Evernham's new Dodge Intrepids. Apparently, the two are trying to get a jump on the field.
"It's a good strategy to be up front," Elliott said. "Ray has helped a lot in a lot of little ways. He doesn't sit at the race track and coach us. He gives us direction.
"Between me, (co-crew chiefs) Mike Ford and Kevin Cram, we've all brought some really good ideas to the race track. It's changed the way I drive the race car. Knowing at the end of the year I won't be an owner/driver is a big burden off me.
"I'm already looking forward to next year."
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