HAMPTON, Ga. - The view from the 37th and 38th starting spots in today's MBNA America 500 isn't spectacular, but Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace aren't worried.
Both relied on provisional exemptions to make the starting lineup for the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and both know 500 miles is a long time for the scenery of a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race to change.
"It's such a long race; it's a 500-miler, and I'm not too concerned," Wallace said. "Starting positions nowadays are very, very important, but a long race like this at such a big track, it doesn't concern me."
Actually, Rudd, Wallace and a handful of the sport's top drivers can find solace in a growing trend where winners come from the back of the pack. Not only have the first three winners this year started 19th, 25th and 24th, but also three of the past five winners at Atlanta have started 35th or worse. Bobby Labonte won at Atlanta in November from the 39th starting spot.
"I didn't need to know that," said driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose Chevrolet is third on the grid for today's 1 p.m. start (Fox-Ch. 54).
Rudd and Wallace both needed provisional exemptions based on last year's car owner points to get a spot at the end of the starting lineup. Neither was quick enough in pole qualifying. Rudd's car has been slow to come up to speed all weekend; Wallace almost spun the car out during his qualifying lap.
They will have a lot of company in the back, where the view for the first 50 miles is certain to include a lot of rear bumpers. Jerry Nadeau, who won the fall race at Atlanta in 2000 from the outside pole, is stuck in 26th. Ward Burton, who started the season with a victory at the Daytona 500, is in 28th. Jeff Burton is 30th, and Mark Martin is in the 39th position.
"There's no question that you would rather be up front - don't get me wrong - but if you've got a good race car, 500 miles is plenty of time to get up front," Rudd said. "It's not the end of the world. If we were at Martinsville, Va., or Bristol, Tenn., it would be a big concern. You would see a lot of long faces. We just have to get this thing racing good and driving good. If we can do that, we know we can still run really good (today)."
There's a lot of fast company at the front of the pack. Bill Elliott, who lives 80 miles away in Dawsonville, won the pole position with a 191.542 mph lap Friday.
Ryan Newman will start second in a Ford. His speed in time trials was 191.463 mph.
Jeff Burton said there's such a huge difference in the cars when they're prepared for two laps of qualifying and 325 laps of racing that qualifying speeds aren't indicative of the best car. That's why so many winners come from the back.
"I wish we could be better than we are, but I know there are some people that qualified in the front that are going to be coming to the back, and I know there are some people in the back that are going to be going to the front," he said. "Qualifying has become such a specialty that some teams do it very well, and they don't race well, while other teams don't qualify well, but they race well.
"The cars are so different in this race versus qualifying trim, and handling means so much. It's 500 miles, and if you can't go from 30th to winning in 500 miles, then you probably weren't going to win if you started on the pole."
In the final practice session, concerned to be the best yardstick of what to expect today, Nadeau was the quickest with a lap of 184.125 mph in race trim. Jeff Burton, however, fell to 39th-fastest.
"We're still not going to panic," he said. "When we qualify poorly, we don't panic about it, we just figure we've got a little more to do to figure out how to get it done."
And if they can't get it figured out before today's race starts, they've got another 500 miles to keep working on it.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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