HAMPTON, Ga. -- Bill Lester stole the show from pole-winner
Kasey Kahne on Friday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, earning a
spot in the Golden Corral 500 to become the the first black driver
to qualify for a race in NASCAR's top series in nearly 20 years.
Driving a Dodge fielded by Bill Davis Racing and facing enormous
pressure, the slim, quiet NASCAR truck series regular put up a lap
of 190.502 mph early in the Nextel Cup series qualifying session on
the 1.5-mile oval.
That was nearly 6 mph faster than he ran in practice. But Lester
still had to wait for more than an hour to see if it would be good
enough to make it into the 43-car field for Sunday's race.
"I only need to hold my breath for 30 or 35 more drivers," a
smiling Lester said after getting out of his car. "I'm just glad I
was able to realize my dream and get this opportunity."
The top 35 cars from last season's owners points are guaranteed
starting spots at every race, leaving only eight places to the
other entries like the 45-year-old Lester, trying to make a Cup
race for the first time.
He made it easily, qualifying 19th overall and the fastest of 15
drivers who tried to drive their way into the race.
"It's overwhelming," said Lester, who raced later Friday night
in the truck race. "This is the culmination of a very long dream
that I've had to race at the top level of motorsports. ... I'm
hoping to think that this is the beginning, that it will open a few
more eyes and get the attention of corporate America.
"This is quite a feat at my age, but I hope I'm still on the
rise," added Lester, the first black man to qualify for a Cup race
since Willy T. Ribbs ran three events in 1986, the last in June of
that year at Michigan International Speedway.
NASCAR's most successful black driver was Wendell Scott, whose
13-year career spanned 495 races and a landmark victory in 1964.
Kahne was also among the earliest of the 52 drivers who made
qualifying attempts on the cool, clear night.
His lap of 192.553 was just good enough to beat Ryan Newman's
192.540 and end the latter's run of Atlanta poles at six. The time
difference between the fastest qualifiers was just .008-seconds.
Rounding out the top five were Jeff Burton at 191.973, Bobby
Labonte at 191.914 and rookie J.J. Yeley at 191.864.
Carl Edwards, who won both Atlanta Cup races last year,
qualified just ahead of Lester in 18th. Series points leader Jimmie
Johnson, winner of two of the first three races this season, will