Avondale, Ariz. Casey Atwood is learning his lessons well.
The rookie, driving for the first-year team of Ray Evernham, came up with his best effort of the season Friday, winning the pole for the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
"It was a really good lap," Atwood said after hustling his Dodge around the mile oval at 131.296 mph. "It wasn't perfect, but it was good enough to win the pole."
Atwood, whose best previous qualifying performance was third in August in Indianapolis, became the 14th different pole winner in 32 events this season, as well as the fourth rookie to earn a start from the top qualifying position.
He joined Jason Leffler and Kurt Busch fellow Rookie of the Year competitors and Ryan Newman, who is running a handful of events this year and will be officially a rookie when he runs the full series in 2002. Poles by four first-year drivers is a modern era record for NASCAR's Winston Cup Series.
"Winning a pole was not really one of my goals," Atwood said. "That was just going to be a bonus if we did that. My goal was to win Rookie of the Year, and even that was way harder than it appeared at the start of the year."
The 21-year-old driver has struggled through most of the year and is 33rd in points, with only two top-10 finishes. He has failed to qualify for one race and fallen out of six others.
"The first half of the season, we struggled a lot," Atwood said. "The second half, we actually picked it up. We qualified third at Indy and ran up front there and we ran 10th at Michigan, and that's a place I've never run good at.
"We've just really stepped up our program. ... We just haven't had the finishes to show for it."
John Andretti, also driving a Dodge, will start from the outside of the front row in Sunday's race after qualifying at 131.071 missing the pole by 0.047 seconds.
Andretti was less disappointed about missing out on his first pole of the season than about team CEO and teammate Kyle Petty qualifying 28th.
"It's been a very difficult season for Petty Enterprises and either him or me winning the pole would have given everybody a reason to talk about us," Andretti said. "The team's kind of been in hiding all year, but Kyle's put a lot of effort into it and the Petty family has put a lot of money into it and it's starting to pay off."
Andretti, Petty and third teammate, Buckshot Jones, have all had trouble qualifying this year while developing their new in-hour engine program.
Last weekend in Talladega, though, Petty was seventh, Andretti eighth and Jones 22nd in time trials. Friday, all three qualified in the top 28.
"It's still the same engine program we've had all year," Andretti said. "It's just coming together."
Jeff Burton, the defending winner here, was third at 130.976, followed by fellow Ford drivers Rusty Wallace at 130.933 and Robert Pressley at 130.804. Bill Elliott, Atwood's teammate, was sixth at 130.596.
Series leader Jeff Gordon, closing in on his fourth Winston Cup championship, was 14th at 130.142, while runner-up Ricky Rudd, a daunting 395 points behind with five races remaining, was 21st at 129.786.