Canada's Jacques Villeneuve qualified sixth on Saturday for his first-ever run in NASCAR's top level.
But it won't be until Sunday's running of the UAW-Ford 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway is over that questions around his participation in the Alabama race will be answered one way or another.
Villeneuve, the former Formula One world champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, came under criticism this week when his team chose a "restrictor plate" race on the circuit's most technically tough track to make his debut in Nextel Cup.
A restrictor plate is a device that fits over the air intake and limits the power an engine can put out, thus lowering its acceleration and speed. But the plate, used only at Talladega and Daytona, also tends to create huge packs of cars and fears, often realized, of multi-car crashes.
With only one truck race (a lower level of NASCAR) behind him, and with three or four hours of high-speed pack running in front of him, many top drivers said this was the wrong choice for a rookie.
But once he had made the field,the Quebec-native said his goal onSunday is "just staying out of trouble. There's been a few finger points, so we have to be even more careful."
Michael Waltrip, leading the charge of "go-or-go-home" entries to the top of the grid, took the pole.
The top 35 cars in NASCAR Nextel Cup owners points are guaranteed a spot in the 43-car field each week and it was the eight drivers who had to make it on speed and worked strictly on qualifying in Friday's practice who dominated in time trials for Sunday's race, the superspeedway debut of the Car of Tomorrow.
All of those eight were drivers who had to qualify, including Villeneuve and Waltrip's teammates David Reutimann and Dale Jarrett.
Hornish Jr. fails to makethe field
Rookie A.J. Allmendinger, Boris Said, Scott Riggs, Sam Hornish Jr., another open-wheel driver and Indy 500 winner hoping to make his Cup debut, and Jeremy Mayfield qualified ninth, 10th, 11th, 13th and 15th, respectively, but were bumped out of the field by drivers in the top 35 in points.
Jeff Gordon, a three-time Talladega winner, including the April race this year, was 45th fastest of the 51 qualifiers and will start 34th. But he said the qualifying results weren't surprising.
"This is just what we expected because those guys who had to qualify spent their time working on speed, while we were working on race setup," the four-time Cup champion said. "They're taking the risk, putting a lot into it and we've given up some speed to get ready for the race.
"I think we'll be just fine in the race," added Gordon, who is second to reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson heading into the fourth of 10 races in the chase for the championship.