HAMPTON, Ga. - The hard part is over for Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon. Now they can relax, knowing all that's left at the Atlanta Motor Speedway is 500 miles of racing Sunday.
Two laps of qualifying had everyone holding their breath Friday afternoon. With speeds stretching past the 192-mph barrier, Jarrett felt equal senses of relief and accomplishment when he drove his UPS Ford Taurus to the pole position.
"Generally, you feel speed here more than you do anywhere else," he said after his car was clocked at 192.748 mph. "This track was built for speed."
The four-story-tall, 24-degree banked corners allow drivers to carry a lot of speed all the way around the 1.54-mile, D-shaped raceway. While nobody said they were good enough to keep it floored all the way around, most said they backed off the throttle for only a split second.
"Qualifying is the hairiest part," Gordon said after qualifying second in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo at 192.413 mph. "It's definitely fast. We got everything out of the car that we could get. I don't know what we could have done to go any faster. There's no other place where you can carry that kind of speed in the corner and have it stick like it does here. It has a lot to do with how well these teams are building the bodies on these cars and the horsepower that's underneath the hood.
"It will be nice to get in our race trim because the speeds will slow down. We'll tape up the front ends, and the tires won't let us run the same kind of laps you see in qualifying during the race. It'll be nice to get a little more control again."
Jarrett's qualifying speed likely will be the fastest of the season - with the possible exception of the season-finale back at Atlanta in November. Even tracks at Daytona Beach, Fla., and Talladega, Ala., won't be as quick because NASCAR has imposed a litany of new rules to keep speeds well below the 190 mph barrier for safety reasons.
Jarrett has qualified no worse than fourth in seven of the past eight races at Atlanta. Despite his success during time trials, he hasn't won during that stretch, although he's finished second four times.
"From our perspective, it's totally different," Jarrett said of the differences between qualifying and racing. "We haven't figured it out for the race. There are differences in what you do to the car. For what you do for qualifying here and what you do for the race, there's as much a difference here as any place I can think of.
"One lap (Friday) doesn't make it the best car for Sunday."
Jarrett said there wasn't anything magical about winning his second consecutive pole position on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. His car was new and never had touched the racing pavement before Friday's practice session. But right off the truck it was clear - his car was a rocket.
"I wish I could say I had something to do with it other than I put it in the right places," Jarrett said. "Our engine department is doing just an incredible job right now with our qualifying engines and our race engines. That's making my job a lot easier, and that's what you have to have here - a combination of a really good car downforce-wise and a good engine combination."
Todd Bodine, who has won the past two NASCAR Busch Series races, put himself in position to become the third first-time winner on the Winston Cup Series in the past five races with a qualifying effort of 192.320 mph. His Ford will be third on the starting lineup for Sunday's main event (1 p.m., FOX).
Defending Winston Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte, who lost in a photo finish by four inches to Dale Earnhardt here a year ago, qualified 34th at 189.054 mph.
With only one round of qualifying, three drivers didn't get a second chance to make the starting lineup. Rick Mast, Carl Long and rookie Casey Atwood all were eliminated from the final lineup, while Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Mike Wallace, Elliott Sadler, Robby Gordon, Kenny Wallace and Ricky Craven all had to utilize a provisional exemption based on last year's car owner points to make the race.
While qualifying remains the hardest two laps of the racing weekend, Jarrett said 500 miles on Sunday are hardly a joy ride.
"The race pace is so fast here that, to me, 500 miles is very difficult now because you're going at such a hectic pace the entire time," he said. "But I think we are very capable of racing the cars and the race being competitive with the speeds that we have right now."