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 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 six 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 point’s leader Jimmie Johnson, winner of two of the first three races this season, will start 14th.