DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) -- Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson didn't have to go through special meetings or pass a rookie test to race last year in the Southern 500.
That tradition is gone, and after Sunday the oldest custom in NASCAR also will be relegated to the past. This is the last running of the race on Labor Day weekend -- ending a tradition that began in 1950.
And, even though both young drivers say they respect the racetrack known as "The Lady in Black" and the "Track Too Tough to Tame," neither seems to be having any trouble negotiating the narrow, treacherous, 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval.
Newman and Johnson, last year's top rookies in Winston Cup, will start from the front row in the 43-car field.
After losing the top qualifying position to Elliott Sadler in the spring, Newman had just enough Friday to beat Johnson for his series-leading sixth pole of the season.
Newman's fast lap of 169.048 mph in a Penske Racing Dodge barely beat the 168.862 of Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The time difference was just 0.032-seconds.
"I was so close to Ryan," Johnson lamented. "I left a little on the table in (turn) four, getting back into the gas. Probably all I needed was just a little bit."
This place is supposed to be the most difficult in NASCAR for young drivers. But Newman and Johnson, the stars of last year's rookie class, had no problems.
Newman qualified third and 12th, then finished fifth and second in his first two Darlington events. Johnson started fifth in both races and rode to finishes of ninth and sixth.
But Darlington didn't treat them quite as well six months ago. Newman started second but finished 14th in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400. Johnson started 14th and wound up 27th.
"It's a tough track, no doubt, but good drivers should be able to adapt to any situation, and I think both Jimmie and I have done an above-average job," Newman said. "Obviously, we've got great teams and great people behind us, but we've got to run the laps and keep the car out of the wall, and that's something that's fun to do here."
"You have to respect this place because it can just eat you up in a minute, but I love racing here," he said.
Newman now has 13 career poles, but this one was a little more special because he was able to beat out friendly rival Johnson.
"We're good friends on and off the racetrack," said Newman, who walked up to Johnson's car and gave him some advice before both of them qualified. "We've been fortunate not to step on each other's toes in a year and a half of racing."
Terry Labonte was third in another Hendrick Chevy at 168.538, followed by Sadler's Ford at 168.451, the Chevy of Bobby Labonte at 158.227 and the Ford of series points leader Matt Kenseth at 158.158.
It's only the seventh top-10 qualifying spot in 25 races this season for Kenseth, who holds a whopping 351-point lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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