In a year of change for Robert Yates Racing, one thing has remained the same. The No. 38 M&M's Ford will once again start on the pole at Talladega Superspeedway.
The No. 38 car captured the pole position at Talladega for the third consecutive NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race Saturday, prevailing during Discount Food Mart Qualifying for Sunday's running of the UAW-Ford 500. This time, however, the driver of the car was NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series rookie David Gilliland, not Elliott Sadler.
This is the seventh pole award for Robert Yates at Talladega Superspeedway, tying the team owner for second place all-time at the track with Harry Melling.
Gilliland turned a fast lap of 191.712 mph, the quickest qualifying speed at Talladega Superspeedway since 1999, to edge Robert Yates Racing teammate Dale Jarrett (191.516 mph) for the top position. Sadler had piloted the No. 38 car to the pole in both last year's UAW-Ford 500 and this year's Aaron's 499 at the track.
"Yates' track record here speaks for itself. It was just a pleasure to drive this M&M's Ford Fusion here today," said Gilliland, who is making only the ninth NASCAR NEXTEL Cup start of his career. "I'm just real proud of the guys (on the team). They prepared a great car."
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon will start on the second row after turning in qualifying runs of 190.400 mph and 190.200 mph, respectively. They will be followed in the top 10 by Greg Biffle (190.041 mph), Kyle Busch (189.808 mph), Sterling Marlin (189.522 mph), Jamie McMurray (189.212 mph), Brian Vickers (188.958 mph) and J.J. Yeley (188.928 mph).
Current NASCAR NEXTEL Cup points leader Jeff Burton will start 34th in Sunday's race, which is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Among other championship contenders, Denny Hamlin will start 12th, Kevin Harvick 14th, Matt Kenseth 19th, Kasey Kahne 25th, Mark Martin 30th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. 33rd.
Gilliland's previous best NASCAR NEXTEL Cup start was 15th, and he has yet to finish a race in the top-20. But Jarrett said he expects Gilliland to have a successful NASCAR career.
"He has a lot of talent," said Jarrett, who won last year's UAW-Ford 500. "It wasn't like Doug (Yates) or Robert went out and grabbed the first person that they could find. They were keeping their eye on a lot of people out there. I think he showed that he can be fast at some race tracks already, and that's something that I'm not sure you can teach. He is a very good talent, and we'll continue to hear a lot about him and watch him race his way toward the front the next couple of years."
Still, as a Talladega novice, Gilliland admits he probably will have some difficult moments during Sunday's race, as he learns how to find teammates and work with the draft. In the process, he said he expects to get hung out of the draft on occasion.
"I don't believe it's a matter of if I get hung out, it's more of when," Gilliland said. "But we've planned for that. The main thing is to earn the respect and find some guys who will stick with you.
"The big, big advantage that we have on our side right now is a very fast race car. I'm hoping that midway and toward the end of the race that guys will want to go to the front and they'll tuck in behind us. Or maybe I can tuck in behind them and help push them to the front and get up there and bring home a good, solid finish for the M&M's car."
Fans will witness the final 500 miles of a whopping 1,000 miles of racing tomorrow in the UAW-Ford 500, race four in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. Tickets are still available to the UAW-Ford 500. Tickets may be ordered by calling 1-877- Go2-DEGA, by logging onto www.racetickets.com, and are also available for purchase on-site at the Talladega Superspeedway Ticket Office located on Speedway Boulevard at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.