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Author: Dustin Long
Date: Feb. 10, 2002
Publisher: The Roanoke Times
Document Type: Article
Length: 794 words

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DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. -- Tat-a-tat-a-tat-a. Whoo!

The sound of success had a different beat Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

Sitting atop the cab of his team's hauler, rookie Jimmie Johnson drummed on the roof with his hands as the final car completed its qualifying run. The car wasn't fast enough, and Jeff Gordon's protege won his first career NASCAR Winston Cup pole.

"It's hard to believe it's real," Johnson said through a large grin.

His lap of 185.831 mph was fast enough to keep fellow California native and "Camp Hornaday" graduate Kevin Harvick off the pole for next weekend's Daytona 500.

The two paced a Chevrolet day, as seven of the top 10 cars were Chevys. Fords had two cars in the top 20, leading its drivers to plead NASCAR for a rule change to make the car competitive.

Although Johnson had been the fastest in January testing and in Friday's practice sessions, Saturday was not an easy day. He was the fourth of 50 cars to make a qualifying attempt and waited nearly three hours - most of it standing on pit road getting a tan in 70-degree weather - before celebrating.

"The whole crew started off real humble and happy with the time that we put up and felt confident that we'd be in the race if something was to happen in the 125," said Johnson, whose team is co-owned by Gordon and Rick Hendrick. "As (Ricky Rudd) went out and more cars kept rolling out, our nerves started playing games on us and our minds started racing away with the idea of, shoot, we might have a shot at this.' "

This was an unfamiliar role for Johnson, who did not win a pole while competing in the Busch Grand National series since 1998.

Johnson raised his arms when Ward Burton, one of the top pole contenders, failed to beat his speed. Johnson then left pit road to be alone. He returned to his team's truck but it didn't have a scoring monitor, so he climbed on top of the cab to watch a nearby scoring pylon. When his No. 48 stayed on top after that last car, he celebrated.

Qualifying determined only the front two starting spots for the 500. Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races will determine positions 3-30. Qualifying time will determine positions 31-36 and the final seven spots are provisionals.

Johnson and Harvick form the most inexperienced front row since the inaugural 500 in 1959. Neither driver has raced in the 500 and Johnson is only the third rookie in race history to start from the pole, matching the feat of Mike Skinner in 1997 and Loy Allen in 1994. Last year's 500 was the only Cup event Harvick missed, taking over the ride after Dale Earnhardt was killed in that race.

Johnson and Harvick share a history as both stayed at separate times with former Cup driver Ron Hornaday in his house early in their careers.

"Lots of people stayed there," Johnson said. "I called it Camp Hornaday."

Johnson and Harvick also are part of the sport's growing youth movement that is pressuring many of the sport's stars who are over 40 years old.

"Everybody talks about change and how the drivers are changing and how everybody is a lot younger, but I think the change is a lot deeper than just the drivers," said Harvick, last year's rookie of the year. "You're seeing the age of the crew chiefs becoming a lot younger, you're seeing the age of the crew become a lot younger and you're seeing a much different way that everything is formed."

Even with changes, some things remain the same. Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing continue to be among the sport's best restrictor-plate teams.

Hendrick Motorsports had Johnson on the pole with Jeff Gordon third, Terry Labonte seventh and Jerry Nadeau 14th. RCR had Harvick second with Robby Gordon sixth and Jeff Green 10th. Ford teams could only imagine such success. Dale Jarrett was the top Ford driver, qualifying 13th fastest - more than half a second off Johnson's time. Jarrett's teammate, Rudd, was 15th.

"The Ford has too much drag in it," Rudd said, referring to an aerodynamic deficiency that slows the car. "This is a group that prides themselves on coming to this race and going for poles and wins and, obviously, that's not going to happen this week."

Not everyone was disappointed.

"This isn't a bad way to start," Johnson said.

Or a bad place to start the 500.

CAPTION(S): photo - TOM COPELAND LANDMARK NEWS SERVICE Jimmie Johnson celebrates on the top of the cab of his team's hauler at the end of qualifying Saturday. Johnson recorded a lap of 185.831 mph. COLOR

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A82766049