Concord, N.C. Bill Elliott put his fear of speeding down pit road aside Friday night, just in time to earn the pole for NASCAR's all-star race a record fifth time.
Under the unique qualifying format for The Winston, drivers race two laps around Lowe's Motor Speedway then pit to change four tires before running a third and final lap. The speed limit coming on to pit road is 45 mph, but there is no limit exiting.
So the drivers are free to race off pit road as fast as they'd like, something Elliott hasn't been comfortable with because of two accidents involving his crew members.
In one of them, in 1986 in Atlanta, crew member Mike Rich was killed when he was hit by another car during a pit stop.
"Pit road has always been a sensitive issue for me," he said. "It's always been just a little bit of an issue because I've always had that in the back of my mind."
Elliott had the second fastest pit stop of the night -- his Evernham Motorsports team changed four tires on the No. 9 Dodge in 12.93 seconds -- and he set a new event record by completing the entire qualifying process at a speed of 131.502 mph.
Elliott has now won The Winston pole four times in the past seven years. He has won the dash-for-cash only once, in 1986 when the race was held in Atlanta the one time it wasn't run at Lowe's.
But he'll try for his second all-star victory tonight, when the winner will earn a record $1 million first prize.
It will be a fight, though.
Only 24 drivers are in the race, which is spread out over three segments with the field trimmed after each round. Only 10 drivers will make it to the final round.
"The key word is 'If' you make it to last segment," Elliott said. "That's what makes it interesting."
Tony Stewart qualified second in a Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick was third and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Sterling Marlin rounded out the top five.
Ryan Newman, who won the race as a rookie last year, qualified 12th.
Jeff Gordon had the quickest pit stop at 12.87 seconds, but qualified only 10th.
Four drivers were penalized during the process -- Rusty Wallace and Elliott Sadler for loose lug nuts, and Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett for speeding as they entered pit road. Rookie Jamie McMurray didn't finish his qualifying attempt after breaking a gear on his Dodge.
Steve Park earned the pole for the Winston Open, the qualifying race held for drivers ineligible for The Winston. The winner of the 30-lap Open advances to the main race.
Park, fired last week by Dale Earnhardt Inc., earned the Open pole in his new car fielded by Richard Childress Racing. His new ride appeared to have rejuvenated him after two years of turbulence as he struggled at DEI after returning from a serious head injury suffered in 2001.
"Change is good," Park said. "I hadn't been this excited and this relaxed to come to the race track in about a year and a half. A lot has happened in the last seven days, and I'm just really happy to end up where I am."
Park will try to hold off 26 others trying to advance to The Winston. The entire evening is about elimination as the 90-lap all-star event continues with the format it adopted last year.
The first segment will be 40 laps with a required four-tire pit stop and the field will be trimmed to the top 20 finishers.
The second segment is 30 laps, with only the top 10 advancing to the final shootout.
The final field will be inverted in the last segment anywhere from four cars to all 10 based on a fan vote. The fans consistently vote to invert all 10 every year.