DAYTONA BEACH — David Gilliland might have summed up Daytona qualifying best.
"It's uncontrolled chaos out there," he said Friday after a rain-shortened and somewhat hairy session landed Gilliland on the pole for the Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400 tonight at Daytona International Speedway.
Gilliland's top speed during a hectic, cat-and-mouse qualifying session was 199.322 mph, earning him his third Sprint Cup pole and first since landing the top spot for the 2007 Daytona 500. All three of his poles have been at restrictor-plate races; the first one was at Talladega in 2006.
"Front Row Motorsports, our strong point is definitely speedway racing," said Gilliland, who finished third in the 2011 Daytona 500. "It is something that's circled on our calendar from the start of the year. We put a lot of emphasis on it.
"The restrictor-plate tracks are good equalizers. David Ragan and I both have good enough cars to win, and that is an exciting feeling. It's something we don't have every week."
Most of the talk was about how the qualifying session shook out.
This was the first time NASCAR's new qualifying rules were used at Daytona. Qualifying began with a 25-minute Round 1 for all 44 cars entered; 24 cars then advanced to a scheduled Round 2, but it and a scheduled Round 3, to which 12 cars would have advanced, were canceled because of rain.
Qualifying produced some hairy moments as groups of cars slowed to a crawl around the 21/2-mile superspeedway. The small packs — most of them formed by teammates — were hoping to pull behind bigger groups to produce fast laps. But no one was eager to lead the way.
Reed Sorenson qualified second, followed by Landon Cassill, Bobby Labonte and Jimmie Johnson. Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is attempting to become the sixth drive to sweep both annual races at NASCAR's most famous track, was seventh.
"It's a mess," Earnhardt said of qualifying. "You have to be in the very back and try to get a big tow. I ain't ever seen anything like it. It's the funniest thing I've ever seen."
It was risky, too. Several cars turned down pit road to get away from the disorder. But the most common concern was the speed differences, with some packs creeping along while others ran full speed.
"It was really wild, and it was pretty dangerous," Matt Kenseth said. "There's car doing 80, and there were cars doing 200, and nobody wanted to go. Everybody wanted to be in the back of the pack and try to catch the front to get a (fast) lap, so it was pretty chaotic."
Similar qualifying took place at Talladega in May for the Aaron's 499. Teammates stuck together in hopes of besting the field. But drivers clearly tweaked some things from those sessions.
"There was just so much going on out there, and it's a wonder we haven't wadded a bunch of cars up," Brian Vickers said. "(We had) a lot of guys running even slower than at Talladega and then some guys even taking chances on blocking the field, which was what really almost caused a few wrecks."
Penske Racing teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were among the 24 who would not have advanced past the first stage. Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch also wouldn't have advanced.
Joe Nemechek was the only driver who did not qualify for the race.
"It's just about being lucky as to who can make it through and who gets the right run," McMurray said. "It's just so crazy that everyone pulls out and doesn't go and then stops. … It just doesn't feel like racing."