With the hearts and minds of everyone directed elsewhere this weekend, Ryan Newman and crew did what they almost-routinely do best, winning the pole Friday for Sunday's Bass Pro Shops 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR's fastest track.
Newman, easily fastest in practice, went out late in the evening order and ran a lap in 29.939sec (191.575mph) to bump improving Joe Nemechek from the front spot. Newman won his third pole in a row, eighth of the season, and fourth consecutive at the 1.54mi "quad" oval.
Nemechek ended up second, with Elliott Sadler third, Carl Edwards fourth and Greg Biffle fifth.
The qualifying runs concluded a sombre day, with all in the garage reflecting on the plane crash last Sunday in Virginia which took the lives of 10 members of the Hendrick Motorsports group. That number included group president John Hendrick and his two daughters, group vice president Ricky Hendrick (son of owner Rick Hendrick), and Randy Dorton, long-time chief of the team's engine department.
The Hendrick teams are here this weekend and sounded resolute in intending to finish the season strong. The four teams held a midday press conference, at which the keynote was that they will continue to advance the cause.
Of the Hendrick drivers, Jimmie Johnson, winner last week at tragic Martinsville, qualified eighth. Jeff Gordon was 10th, Brian Vickers 13th, and Terry Labonte wsa 42nd with a provisional. Gordon is second in the championship standings and Johnson fourth. Kurt Busch, who qualified a disappointing 22nd, leads Gordon by 96 with four races to go.
The second story of the day was the number of entered cars, and the number hence who failed to qualify. There were 58 entries, as several teams, established and new, ramped up toward 2005 with new numbers and drivers.
The surfeit of entries caused the provisionals list to be packed with top names, including Matt Kenseth, Labonte, and Ricky Rudd. Rudd, who received last provisional (43rd), is 25th in points, which meant that anyone below 25th on the list could not make criteria. The most notable casualties were rookies Scott Riggs and Scott Wimmer, each of whom missed for the first time this season.
Such anxiety in qualifying had not been seen all year, with the season starting amid questions over how the fields would be filled, and with regular entries by long-shot, independent teams.
The trick was that several of the newcomers made the grid on time, thus bumping back through the points chart. John Andretti, Kevin Lepage, Todd Bodine, Travis Kvapil, Tony Raines, Martin Truex and Kyle Busch were among those who qualified on lap speed, which covers the top 38 positions.
"It's a part of racing, and I think it's good," Newman said realistically. "It's healthy for the sport even if cars are going home. I don't have anything against anybody who went home, but it's part of what our sport is about. It's good to see our sport healthy as far as car count goes."
Newman last year won eight races and 11 poles, recording one of the great seasons in the books. He leads the circuit with eight poles this season but has won only twice and is ninth in the standings, well short of what he expected.
"We have no excuse," Newman said. "We've proved we're the fastest race car on a given lap. You have to be able to do that for 60 laps in a row here. It's definitely not an easy task to be fast throughout a long run and keep the back end of the car underneath you. It's a place I don't mind being a little tight, but you can't stand to be a little bit loose."
Most cars were, however, radically loose during the time trials, with most drivers admitting they held their breath as the rear wheels danced around during two hot laps.