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Controversy clouds rainy Watkins Glen qualifying

Labonte given pole position after rain-out

SHARE Controversy clouds rainy Watkins Glen qualifying

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Bobby Labonte was hoping to get some help in his attempt to win for the first time on a road course.

He got far more than he could have expected Saturday, awarded the pole after qualifying was rained out for the second time in 24 hours at Watkins Glen International.

It was a case of being in front — in the Winston Cup standings, that is — that put Labonte in front.

Nearly as fortunate was series champion Dale Jarrett, who starts the Global Crossing on Sunday alongside Labonte because he's second in points.

"I don't know if we could have won the pole or not," Labonte said. "At least we were better than we have been here."

For that, he can thank Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart, who tested earlier this month on the 2.45-mile road course. Labonte, whose best road-course finishes are a trio of fourths, got his second pole of the season and the 20th of his career.

"I'd say we probably came here with more confidence because we ran good at Sears Point, plus (Stewart) tested here," said Labonte. "We're kind of taking what we know from the past and what they did up here testing."

The rainout gave him position, and data from Stewart's test might help the 36-year-old Texan to his third career victory this year, on the heels of a win last weekend in the Brickyard 400.

Rain this weekend in the Finger Lakes region might have cost Stewart, the only three-time winner on the circuit.

"I felt like we had a shot at the pole," said Stewart, who will start sixth. "No doubt in my mind we would have sat on the front row."

At least he's sitting somewhere on the grid. The less fortunate were sent home, some of them complaining about NASCAR's selection procedure.

Owner points determined the first 35 spots, Darrell Waltrip got in as a past champion, and the final seven slots were filled by the luck of the draw for order of qualifying.

"Plain and simple, it's wrong," said Brett Bodine, 38th in points. "I'm here every week trying to make races and because we were unlucky in a draw I'm not going to make the race?"

Dave Marcis, at 59 the oldest driver on the circuit, was livid.

"Has this sport got no merit?" Marcis asked. "Maybe we could just travel all over the country and put the numbers in a hat and draw them out every week to determine the lineup."

NASCAR once settled such problems by return postmarks on entry forms, but changed that this year because it had no guarantees that car owners got their incoming mail at the same time.

"Somebody was going to have to go home, whether or not we qualified everybody by time or provisionals or by the rule book," said chief operating officer Mike Helton. "We establish the rules at the beginning of the year and we stick to them."

Ron Fellows, who finished second last year, did make the field. While he was lucky enough to make the race because he drew the 25th position in the qualifying order, Fellows must start 40th.

"That's going to be tough on a road course," said Fellows, who hopes to become the first non-regular to win a Winston Cup race since 1973.

Jeff Gordon, whose record of six straight wins on the serpentine tracks that comprise two of the 34 races, did much better than Fellows. He'll start eighth in his bid for a NASCAR record of seven wins overall on road courses.

"We'd like to have qualified, because I think we would have been starting further up than eighth," said Gordon, fastest just ahead of Fellows after the rain subsided long enough for a final practice session.

Among those who missed the field was Boris Said, like Fellows an entrant only on road courses. He started second last year and had the fastest car in practice, but lost in the draw.

Starting behind Labonte's Pontiac and Jarrett's Ford will be the Chevy of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt. He'll be flanked by Jeff Burton's Ford.

Going from the fifth spot on the grid will be the Ford of Rusty Wallace, who shares, with Gordon, the series record of six wins on road courses. Wallace wrecked his primary car in the morning, but got to keep his year-old qualifying record of 121.234 mph because of the rainout.