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500 qualifying a test of speed vs. power

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Tony Stewart likes to joke that a monkey could qualify a car at Daytona International Speedway.

It's not a knock on anyone's driving skills but rather a nod to NASCAR teams' engineering and motor departments and Daytona's smooth, high banks.

Historically the track has produced unpredictable Daytona 500 pole qualifying -- with an upstart like unheralded rookie Loy Allen winning the 1996 pole position and the late Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time champ, starting No. 1 in this race only once in his legendary career.

Recently however, "it's more of a crew chief pole than a driver pole," said Ryan Newman, Stewart's Stewart-Haas Racing teammate. "The driver puts very little into the equation. And it's different now with essentially eight teams supplying all the engines instead of every team building its own like it used to be."

Nonetheless, Daytona 500 pole day Sunday -- it will be televised live on FOX -- is shaping up for a classic test of make and power -- Chevy vs. Ford vs. Toyota and Dodge, just like NASCAR's "good ol' days."

Fords dominated the top of the speed charts in Saturday's practice sessions -- Greg Biffle was fastest in both -- but the betting favorite still has to be Hendrick Motorsports, whose Chevys have won three of the past four Daytona 500 poles.

And that creates some interesting possibilities.

The 500's most-talked-about debutante, Danica Patrick, will be driving a Chevrolet powered by a Hendrick engine, and she turned highly respectable laps during both practices Saturday.

All four Hendrick Motorsports team cars -- Jeff Gordon (third fastest), 2011 pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2008 pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne looked strong in practice.

Stewart's Chevrolet uses Hendrick power. So could a first Daytona 500 pole position finally result in a 500 win for the reigning points champ?

Biffle, who won the Daytona 500 pole in 2004, was obviously encouraged by his consistency atop the field, his No. 16 3M Ford turning the fastest lap of the day at 193.395 mph.

"The thing that concerns me a little bit is that's about all we've got,'' Biffle said after the final practice.

"I know more and more people have been showing up and just doing three or four lap runs and have a lot of their stuff already on the car, but we really don't have many more tricks in the bag.

"All the stars have to line up, like everything else."

Ford engine builder Doug Yates was optimistic and said teams really like the power generated by the new fuel-injection engines.

"It is so tight. I've never seen the field this close -- it's almost like we're in Bristol (Tenn.), how close the lap times are. Every detail will matter.

"Hendrick, of course, you never count those guys out.

"But I feel like our guys have a good shot at a pole tomorrow."