DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Carl Edwards fell bitterly short in last season's bid to win the NASCAR championship.
He's starting 2012 out front.
Edwards, who lost the championship last season on a tie-breaker to Tony Stewart, won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500, beating teammate Greg Biffle for the top starting spot during a windy Sunday qualifying session at Daytona International Speedway.
Edwards turned a lap at 194.738 mph — the fastest pole-winning speed since Jeff Gordon's lap of 195.067 mph in 1999. Biffle was second at 194.087 to give Ford and Roush Fenway Racing a sweep of the front row.
"It's so neat to come down here and to be so fast and to really have fun qualifying here," Edwards said. "These are the best race cars we've ever had at Daytona. Coming down here I didn't even consider the pole, so this is huge."
Biffle was not as thrilled.
"I'm a little disappointed," Biffle said. "I hate the wind. I guess if you're out sailing, it's good. It was singing down the back, but coming down the front I just got a big gust of wind coming off of (turn) four ... I knew I didn't have it."
Edwards and Biffle were the only two drivers to lock down their starting positions in Daytona's unique qualifying format. The rest of the starting order for next Sunday's race is set through Thursday's twin 150-mile qualifying races.
But only four starting spots are up for grabs.
NASCAR guarantees starting spots to the top 35 teams from last season, three spots go to the fastest drivers in time trials not already locked in and one spot goes to a previous NASCAR champion. The drivers who earned starting spots in qualifying were defending race winner Trevor Bayne, Tony Raines, David Stremme and former NASCAR champion Terry Labonte.
Clint Bowyer, making his debut for Michael Waltrip Racing, was 22nd in qualifying but had his time thrown out when his car failed inspection. NASCAR said Bowyer will have to start last in Thursday's qualifying race, but that's the only penalty his No. 15 team will face.
Scott Miller, vice president of competition for MWR, said he doesn't think starting in the back is too big of a blow for Bowyer.
"As far as the 150 goes, you're going to be to the front and to the back of that thing," Miller said. "Our competitiveness and our ability to go win the 150 hasn't changed any."
Danica Patrick was 29th in qualifying, but is guaranteed a spot in her first Daytona 500 based on a business deal Stewart Haas Racing made with Tommy Baldwin Racing. Patrick goes into the season with the points Dave Blaney earned for Baldwin last season, and gets into the 500 because it was a top-35 team last year.
"To say I wasn't nervous at all is a lie," she said. "Of course I was, a little bit. I want to do a good job."
She watched Saturday night's exhibition Budweiser Shootout from the spotter stand, and is anxious to run in the qualifying race Thursday to get a feel for the pack racing. NASCAR made significant tweaks to the rules package during the offseason to break up the two-car tandem and return racing to the fan-preferred pack.
"I'm not completely unfamiliar with the pack," she said.
Edwards, meanwhile, is eager to race and put 2011 behind him once and for all.
His loss to Stewart in the championship race was gut-wrenching, and despite holding his head high and demonstrating how to lose with dignity, he's been unable to move forward because of the intense attention on his defeat.
"It seems like every media question and all anybody says is, 'How great would it have been to have one more point and how did you deal with that this offseason?' Edwards said. "I think this is nice to come here and show everyone that, hey, it isn't just talk. Everybody at Roush Fenway went back and worked hard and kept their heads down and dug.
"This is very special. It's not a driving accomplishment. This is a team accomplishment, this pole."
It gave Roush his first sweep of the Daytona 500 front row, but marked the third time in 12 years Ford drivers have taken the top two spots. It also comes on the heels of Ford's victory last month in the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona sports car race.
"What a way to start the season," said Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing. "Our Fords are fast."
Edwards won his pole without crew chief Bob Osborne, who missed the weekend events at Daytona after the death of his father. Chip Bolin filled in for Osborne, and helped Edwards to his first career pole at Daytona.
"We felt like this was the best crop of superspeedway cars we had brought to the race track in a long time," Bolin said. "Our entire organization was really confident. Bob has built this program on steady, calculated moves and we just tried to execute the plan that he expected us to do here and here we are."
Carl Edwards bounced back from his loss to Tony Stewart in last year's title race by winning the pole for the Daytona 500. Here are some other things to watch going into NASCAR's biggest race:
- Danica Patrick will make her Daytona 500 debut, and the series is thrilled she's made the full-time move to NASCAR.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, had his best season in five years in 2011 and is excited about his chances in the Daytona 500. "I like this kind of racing better. At least I know what to expect," Earnhardt said. "I feel like I have a better chance with this style than I did last year for damn sure."
- There's already some controversy, as the car for five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson failed inspection before it ever got on the track. Crew chief Chad Knaus will likely be penalized after the Daytona 500.