HAMPTON, Ga. - Bill Elliott found enough speed to win the pole for the MBNA America 500 in a peculiar place - behind closed doors.
With the single-engine rule looming like an approaching storm, much of Friday's qualifying session at the Atlanta Motor Speedway became a matter of educated guesses and blind faith.
Elliott's team made all the right moves while his red Dodge Intrepid sat parked in the garage area. After running just a handful of laps during practice, the team relied on Elliott's experience to make it more competitive for two laps around the 1.54-mile raceway in time trials.
"We feel like coming to a racetrack like Atlanta that's historically hard on engines, we want to keep as many miles off it as we can," said crew chief Mike Ford.
So instead of logging laps, the team spent some of their practice time in meetings.
"We changed the car quite a bit from practice," he said. "And right before we went out to qualify, we made some more air pressure changes. It all worked. I was able to get the feel I was looking for. It seemed like we finally have a handle on this configuration."
Elliott, who lives 80 miles away in Dawsonville, used to dominate races at Atlanta when it was a 1.5-mile oval. When the track converted to a D-shaped facility in 1997, his luck also changed. Before the change, he had five pole positions and four wins at Atlanta. Friday's pole was his first success of any kind since the change.
NASCAR's single-engine rule became a factor in time trials. Teams were leery of putting too many laps on the engine during practice since they must use the same engine all weekend, including Sunday's 500-mile main event.
"There isn't time to run a lot of laps in practice (before qualifying)," Elliott said. "Jeremy (Mayfield, Elliott's teammate) tested out here and he gave us some information. But he went one way (with his pre-qualifying setup) and we went another."
Mayfield wasn't among the top 36 qualifiers so he used a provisional exemption based on car owner points to start 40th.
"That shows you just how competitive it's gotten out here," Elliott said. "There wasn't that much difference between the cars."
Ryan Newman qualified second in a Ford Taurus. His speed was 191.463 mph. Newman also qualified second last week at Las Vegas.
"Bill had an awesome lap," Newman said. "We came up from 18th in practice to second, so that's a great lap for us."
Elliott said making significant changes to the car without the chance to test them requires a lot of faith in a team's experience. But compared to pushing an engine too far, it's a gamble worth taking.
"We hit it right on the money and that's hard to do in this business," Elliott said. "It seems like if you can ever get the feel you're looking for, you can make things happen for you.
"You've got to have the car under you and you have to have confidence in what you're doing and sail that thing down off in the corner. This is just one step of what we've got to do. You've still got to run 325 laps here Sunday afternoon."
Elliott said he doesn't concern himself with the engine rule.
"These guys are going to push it to the limit," he said. "That's up to the motor tuners in the garage. The drivers are going to go out and drive whatever they have to drive."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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