CONCORD, N.C. (AP) -- Free to concentrate on driving for the first time in six years, Bill Elliott is seizing the opportunity.
Elliott, who hasn't won a race since starting his own team in 1995, is closing the shop after this season so he can drive for Ray Evernham's Dodge team in 2001. The merger allows the veteran driver to spend less time on daily operations and more time on racing.
He showed how smooth the transition is going Friday with a pole-winning run for The Winston.
''Knowing that at the end of the year I won't be an owner and a driver anymore, I think all that burden has been lifted off of me, knowing I've got a good place in this,'' Elliott said. ''I'm going to work for a great guy in Ray Evernham next year. I'm looking forward to that already.''
The qualifying process in the past required drivers to make three laps around Lowe's Motor Speedway, stopping once to change two tires. But this year, the stop was made before the laps began.
Elliott capitalized on the change for an average lap speed of 152.928 mph -- shattering the record of 146.830 Bobby Labonte set last year.
''I'm really impressed at how quick these guys have come together because I didn't expect it to happen so fast,'' Elliott said. ''This is the best I've been at the race track in a very long time, and my guys are really pumped up right now. One thing just feeds off the other.''
It was the fourth pole for Elliott in 15 appearances in The Winston, which he won in 1986.
Tonight's race has a record purse this year of $2 million. If Elliott wins the 70-lap all-star event, he would get $500,000.
Starting alongside him on the front row will be Mark Martin, who was over a second slower than Elliott and finished with an average lap speed of 151.467
Labonte, who drove one of the slowest cars in both of Friday's practice sessions, recovered to qualify third with a speed of 151.399.
Rusty Wallace will start fourth, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Jeremy Mayfield.
Eighteen drivers were guaranteed entry in The Winston, and the rest of the drivers were to run today for the remaining two spots.
Tonight's race marks the first time in years that a Petty wasn't at the track on a race weekend.
Kyle Petty skipped the all-star event to mourn the loss of his son, Adam. The 19-year-old driver was killed May 12 when he crashed during practice for the Busch 200 at New Hampshire International Speedway. Kyle's father, Richard, also skipped the event, and their absence didn't go unnoticed.
''I can't remember a time in 50 years that a Petty wasn't at the track,'' three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip said.
''I think the thing that bothers me the most about sports in general, ours particular, is that you never have a chance to mourn. That race went on Saturday and Adam wasn't there just like this race will go on and Richard and Kyle are not here.''
Waltrip, one of only three drivers to race in all 15 of the previous Winstons, will start 17th. His car was the slowest of the day, but John Andretti was penalized three seconds for a missing lugnut and dropped to 18th.
IMAGINE: Flying cars. Tracks with tunnels and loops. Drivers in energy-absorbing safety suits.
Let your imagination go wild and tell NASCAR what you think the future holds for the stock car sport.
NASCAR 2000 is giving fans heading to Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte for next Wednesday's qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 an opportunity to predict the future of racing.
Those on hand between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. that day can fill out a prediction form and drop it in a time capsule that, once sealed, will not be opened until 2050.
NASCAR 2000 is a campaign exploring the future of stock car racing.
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