Jon Wood, a third-generation racer, is making his second career start in the Wood Brothers’ legendary No. 21 Ford.
It’s been all about Tony Stewart at Talladega Superspeedway, where he’s planted himself inside the spotlight by entering free agency.
He’s backed up the high level of interest being shown in NASCAR’s two-time champion with strong runs on the race track, including a stout qualifying lap Saturday that seemed to lock down the pole position.
Some three hours later, Joe Nemechek stole his thunder.
Nemechek, the 45th of 46 drivers to make a qualifying attempt, knocked Stewart off the pole with a lap of 187.386 mph. It was the first pole since 2005, a span of 93 races, for “Front Row Joe,” and was his fourth career pole at Talladega — best among active drivers.
Nemechek credited his Furniture Row Racing team, a single-car operation based out of Denver that had to qualify on speed to make today’s race. Nemechek is 42nd in the points and has missed two of eight races this season.
Nemechek’s car is sponsored this week by the National Day of Prayer.
“It takes a lot of work and a lot of innovative thinking to get your cars to go fast, and to get them through the air,” Nemechek said. “And it’s paying attention to all the details. The cool thing about us is we’re just a small team. We don’t have that many employees.
“Yates, Roush, Joe Gibbs Racing, Childress, there’s some big companies there, and we were able to beat them today. I’m very proud of that.”
Stewart, a six-time runner-up at Talladega, had to settle for the second starting spot. He was the seventh driver to make his lap, and his 186.896 held almost the entire session. He’s now qualified inside the top 10 in eight of his 19 Talladega starts, but is still searching for his first win at the track.
Talladega is one of just four tracks where Stewart has yet to score a win.
“It is important to me,” he said. “We’ve run second here six times in nine years, so a third of the races here I’ve run second. I’m ready to get one more spot finally.”
Ken Schrader, the final driver to make his qualifying attempt, grabbed the third spot. Driving in his first race for Haas CNC Racing, which has used a revolving door of drivers since Jeremy Mayfield left the No. 70 Chevrolet earlier this month, Schrader ran a lap at 186.499 mph.
A.J. Allmendinger will start fourth in his season debut. He failed to qualify his Red Bull car for the first three races of the year, and the team replaced him with Mike Skinner for the next five events. Allmendinger spent his time out of the seat learning everything he could from Skinner, who was also charged with giving the No. 84 team a playbook to work with the rest of the season.
Allmendinger’s start today will be his first Cup race since Fort Worth last November.
Kyle Busch, Stewart’s teammate, was fifth to give Toyota three cars in the top five. David Ragan was the highest-qualifying Ford at sixth, but Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers followed in two more Toyotas.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top 10.
Four Fords — Carl Edwards, Jon Wood, Matt Kenseth and Travis Kvapil — were next in line. Wood, a third-generation racer, is making his second career start in the Wood Brothers’ legendary No. 21 Fusion.
Drivers qualifying on speed were Nemechek, Allmendinger, Schrader, Wood, Sterling Marlin, Kyle Petty, Patrick Carpentier and Dario Franchitti. But Franchitti later broke his ankle in the Nationwide race and will be replaced by David Stremme.
Failing to qualify were John Andretti, J.J. Yeley and Dave Blaney.