HAMPTON, Ga. - Suddenly, Rocketman is back.
Ryan Newman, NASCAR's premier qualifier from his rookie year in 2002 through 2005, piling up 35 poles, slumped to just two last year - none after taking the top qualifying spot at New Hampshire in July.
But Friday night he looked like the speed demon of old, turning a fast lap of 193.124 mph that was nearly 1Â½ mph faster than runner-up Elliott Sadler's 191.894 on a cold, windy night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
It's the first time this season the Penske Racing driver has qualified better than 16th.
"We were good in practice, worked on it a little bit, exchanged some notes with Kurt's team and improved it quite a bit," Newman said, referring to teammate Kurt Busch.
So why has he been so slow in qualifying?
"Just getting things right with our Dodge," Newman said. "This is the exact same car that qualified 39th last week and finished eighth (at Las Vegas). We knew it was a good race car, we just needed to get it figured out.
"We struggled last year and it feels good to be back in this seat," he added.
Newman ran away with the pole despite a miss in the engine.
"It did it in both straightaways," he said, grinning. "I was really surprised. But the car got through the corners so fast that Penske Jasper engine was still able to get it done. It's a great effort for us and a great result."
The fast lap, besides earning Newman his 38th career pole, gave him his seventh Atlanta pole and ninth front row start in 10 tries on the fast 1.5-mile oval, although he has yet to finish better than fifth. Qualifying last fall was rained out and the lineup was set by points, with Newman starting 17th.
Sadler, who got crew chief Josh Browne back last week at Las Vegas after Browne missed the first two races while serving a suspension for a technical violation at Daytona, was elated by his qualifying run.
"It was a great lap," said Sadler, who spent the early part of this week in bed with the flu. "I'm proud of my guys in qualifying the last couple of weeks. I got Josh, my team director, back and it's made a big difference. Just a great way to get the weekend started."
Defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, coming off a win in Las Vegas, qualified third at 191.787 and chalked up the strong effort to forgetting about working on race setup in the opening practice after looking at the weather forecast.
Temperatures during qualifying dropped into the low 40s, with wind gusts up to 31 mph. Sunday's forecast calls for a high of 61 and calm conditions.
"We chose to just work on qualifying today," Johnson said. "I'm usually a lot better on Sunday than I am on Friday, so that probably explains it."
Mark Martin, the series points leader, sat on the pole for nearly half the qualifying session before being bumped by Newman. He wound up fourth, followed by Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, David Stremme and Kyle Busch.
Meanwhile, the saga of the non-qualifiers continued with 15 drivers vying for seven open spots in Sunday's 43-car field, meaning eight good cars were sent home after time trials.
It was a great night for Mike Bliss, who finally made a Nextel Cup field, qualifying a surprising ninth after failing to making the first three races of the season.
It was another tough night for Toyota, which joined the Cup series this season. Camry drivers Dave Blaney, Brian Vickers and rookie David Reutimann made it into the field, along with Dale Jarrett, who used up the fourth of six available former series champion's provisionals to start 43rd.
Among the Toyota drivers coming up short - again - were Michael Waltrip, who owns the cars of Reutimann and Jarrett, Jeremy Mayfield, Blaney's teammate, and rookie A.J. Allmendinger, Vickers' teammate. Waltrip, who scraped the wall during practice Friday, has failed to make the lineup since qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500, while Mayfield and Allmendinger have not yet made a Cup field this season.
Others driving their way into the lineup included Joe Nemechek, rookies Paul Menard, Johnny Sauter and Sterling Marlin.
Also heading home were Scott Wimmer, Ward Burton, John Andretti, Kenny Wallace and Kevin Lepage.
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