DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Jimmie Johnson posted the fastest lap of testing 35 days ago at the Daytona International Speedway. Not much has changed since.
The rookie protege from the Hendrick Motorsports camp was fastest when it counted Saturday, winning the pole position for the Daytona 500 with a lap of 185.831 mph.
Johnson's Lowe's Chevrolet Monte Carlo has been the car to beat throughout two different test sessions, Friday's practice and Saturday's time trials.
"We've pretty much showed our hand all along," Johnson said. "We didn't hold anything back. We figured some people might be holding an ace in their pocket. We've shown everything we've got all along."
Coupled with Kevin Harvick's lap of 185.770 mph, the front row for the Great American Race will consist of drivers who've never been in a Daytona 500. In fact, next Sunday's race will be the first time either driver has been at a Daytona 500.
Both are Southern California drivers who cut their teeth racing Late Models on bullrings like Mesa Marin Raceway and already have made an impact on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Harvick, last year's rookie of the year in Winston Cup, didn't get his ride with Richard Childress Racing until a couple days after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of last year's Daytona 500.
"I'm still trying to figure out how this all works," Harvick said. "From what I understand, we're on the front row for the Daytona 500. We don't have to worry about using a provisional or racing our way into the race."
Saturday's time trials locked in the first two spots for the 500. The next 28 positions will be determined by the finishing positions of two different 125-mile qualifying races on Thursday. After that, the final 13 spots will go to the six fastest qualifying speeds still not in the race and seven provisional exemptions based on last year's point standings.
To compound the confusion, there will be a second qualifying session today. Drivers who elect to drop their first round speeds have a chance to move up the speed charts to give them a better starting spot for the qualifying races and a better chance to earn one of the six positions at the back of the pack.
Jeff Gordon, teammate and part-owner of Johnson's car, was third at 185.491 mph, followed by Robert Pressley's Dodge in fourth at 185.273, Ward Burton's Dodge in fifth at 184.426.
While the youth movement consumed a lot of the attention after qualifying, the fact that Pontiac and Ford failed to qualify in the top 10 was a topic that swept through the garage area like a wildfire.
The best Pontiac was driven by Bobby Labonte in 12th, while the best Ford was driven by Dale Jarrett in 13th.
Chevrolet posted eight of the top 11 speeds. Dodge was the only other manufacturer in the top 10.
"You don't win here without being good," said car owner Robert Yates. "We've never won this race when we've had a half-second deficit."
Yates owns the only Fords - Jarrett in 13th and Ricky Rudd in 15th - in the top 20. Joe Gibbs owns the only two Pontiacs - Labonte in 12th and Tony Stewart in 20th - in the top 20.
"We don't have anything for the GM cars, or the Dodges for that matter," Rudd said. "Everybody's going to start saying that we're complaining again, but I've found it amazing that everybody started hollering when they cut a quarter-inch off the Chevrolet spoiler before testing ever started. It looks like they really needed it."
Chevrolet, as expected, was quick to defend its advantage.
"It's how hard the guys work back at the shop ad how much attention you put toward the cars it the off-season," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. "It's like the Ford guys have a little meeting before they came and said they were going to ride around. I don't believe they're at a big disadvantage."
While everyone except Johnson and Harvick still have to race their way into the Daytona 500 next Thursday, cars that qualified in the top 10 Saturday are in good shape to use one of the six leftover qualifying speeds, if necessary.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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