Bill Elliott and the crew of the # 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion couldn’t be blamed if they took it easy during Friday night qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The team had struggled in practice and made lots of changes to the car after practice. The outcome of their qualifying lap on a cold, crisp night was far from predictable.
Then, just before Elliott took his turn on the clock, Bobby Labonte, a former series champion, qualified on time. At that point, Elliott was in the race no matter how he ran because he was then eligible for a past-champion’s provisional starting spot. But the Woods and Elliott came to race, so once Elliott fired up the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion, he gave it everything he had.
He found the speed to make the race without having to resort to the provisional, a victory in itself on a potentially disappointing day. To do so, he picked up 6/10 of a second over his best lap in practice, a difference in running 185 miles per hour and 189. It was about the same pick-up that Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed to win the pole for Sunday’s race.
“I don’t think anybody else picked up that much,” said Wood Brothers team co-owner Eddie Wood. “That’s a big credit to [crew chief] David Hyder and the crew and to Bill,” he said. “Bill knew when he left pit road that he was in the show, but he still ran that hard.”
Elliott will start 34th in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, but now that the team is in the race, the crew can focus on a more conventional set-up for running 500 miles. “We’ll go back to something close to what we’ve run here before,” Wood said.
After the red # 21 was back in its pit stall and put away for the night, Wood and Hyder went trackside and took in a NASCAR Modified race on the quarter-mile oval on the frontstretch at AMS. It was a welcome respite from a tense, stressful day at the track. Stressful days are something the Woods and Hyder deal with regularly while running a limited schedule without the luxury of a guaranteed starting spot. “It’s like this every week,” Wood said. “It’s no different than Daytona. We were fast at Daytona, but we still had to sweat it out. “Here at Atlanta, we struggled a little bit, but fortunately we were able to get in the race on time and not have to use a provisional.”
As a bonus, the Modified race was a barn-burner, a throwback to the old days of racing at places like Bowman-Gray Stadium, where team founder Glen Wood, Eddie’s father, once ruled the roost. A day that had been filled with anxiety ended with the satisfaction of a gutsy qualifying effort by the 54-year-old Bill Elliott and a door-to-door Modified finish as 19-year-old Corey Lajoie beat veteran Tim Brown in the 150-lap feature.
Now it’s on to Sunday, and a race at a track where the Woods are the all-time win leaders with 12 and where Elliott is the hometown favorite. The Kobalt Tools 500 is set to get the green flag at 1 p.m. with TV coverage on FOX and radio coverage by PRN.