"Front Row Joe" had been racing from the back all too often lately. Thanks to a recent shakeup on his crew, Joe Nemechek is back at the front of the field.
Nemechek lived up to a nickname that had become almost obsolete by winning the pole position Thursday night for the Pepsi 400.
With a speed of 194.860 on Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-mile trioval, Nemechek got his first top qualifying effort in more than two years. It offered more proof that he and crew chief Tony Glover, whom team owner Felix Sabates reassigned to Nemechek's team last month, are a winning combination.
"The change kind of caught me by surprise, but I think in the end, Felix had two teams that were struggling a little bit," Nemechek said. "He wanted to see if he could make something happen."
Mission accomplished. In the last three weeks, Nemechek and teammate Sterling Marlin have each won a pole.
Outside of Nemechek for Saturday's race will be Ricky Rudd, an owner-driver who qualified at 194.574 mph just hours after learning his nine-year sponsorship deal with Tide will be terminated after this year.
"I guess this doesn't hurt anything," Rudd said of his effort to find a new sponsor. "It's good advertising. What I'm proud about is that I took a pretty bad slap in the face for our team effort. The guys on our team are good. We just need time to mature."
In third was Mark Martin, who qualified at 194.376 mph. Martin is seeking his first restrictor-plate victory since 1997 at Talladega, when his Ford, helped by an aerodynamic edge, averaged 188.354 mph in an accident-free race on the circuit's fastest track.
"I really feel like we've got the best shot at a race at Daytona than we've ever had," said Martin, who has never won a main event at the track. "We've got great horsepower. This is the most I've had on any restrictor plate that I can ever remember."
Next to Martin will be Chad Little (193.690 mph), with Rusty Wallace and Tony Stewart in the third row.
Jeff Gordon, who won the pole and the Daytona 500 in February, qualified 11th. Dale Earnhardt was 10th and series points leader Dale Jarrett was 12th.
The pole seemed like familiar territory for Nemechek two years ago, when two poles and three second-place starts earned him the nickname "Front Row Joe."
Sitting in 37th place this year with one top-10 finish, desperation had replaced cute nicknames as the identifying mark of Nemechek's team.
"We definitely have had the toughest season I've ever had," said Nemechek, who came on the Winston Cup circuit in 1993. "We've had some really good race cars. We should be in the top 15 in points. We've been involved in seven accidents. We've had all kinds of crazy things happen to us."
Nemechek has made 170 Winston Cup starts without a victory. Like any driver, he would like to break that string at NASCAR's most famous rack. Of course, he knows that qualifying and the actual race are always different at Daytona, one of two tracks that require carburetor restrictor plates to reduce speeds.
"It's a whole different setup," Nemechek said. "Qualifying is made for two laps. You can just barely hang onto it. Race mode, you've got to hang on and hold that throttle open all day."
The 25 fastest qualifiers locked up starting spots in the 43-car field, with the rest of the lineup to be set Friday in the final round of time trials.
Among the drivers who failed to make the top 25 and will have to either try again Friday or stand on their first-day laps were Terry Labonte, who was 39th, and Steve Park, last among the 44 who made a qualifying attempt.
Kenny Wallace also failed to qualify. He had to use an untested car after getting into an accident in practice. Wallace was able to drive in qualifying, but the car did not survive the accident.
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed