An afternoon rain shower is hardly unusual in Florida.

Tony Stewart starting on the pole because of a qualifying rainout is becoming almost as commonplace.

NASCAR cancelled Friday's time trials at Daytona International Speedway after a thunderstorm drenched the track, and as a result, the Sprint Cup points leader will start from the top spot because of rain for the third time this season.

With the top 35 cars in the 43-car field for Saturday's Coke Zero 400 set according to owner points, Stewart will start next to Jeff Gordon, the driver closest to him in the standings. Three-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson rolls off third, with fourth-place Kurt Busch to his outside.

Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya will be credited with the fifth through twelfth positions, respectively.

Because Biffle was involved in a crash during practice on Thursday and went to a back-up car, however, he will start from the rear.

Even though Biffle's crash occurred a day before the scheduled qualifying session, his choice to go to a back-up car sends him to the back of the field because Saturday's event is an impound race, with all practice sessions held before qualifying.

Johnson was happy to get the third spot, saying that track position has become increasingly important at 2.5-mile Daytona.

"It's as important here as just about any racetrack we go to, oddly enough," Johnson said. "With the track aging, the roughness of the track, it's so important where you start and where you run on the track. It's changed, really, in the last few years.

"In my opinion, with this car (NASCAR's new racecar), it's becoming more and more important at Daytona. At Talladega (NASCAR's other restrictor-plate racetrack), it does not matter. Track position is not as important because you can run three and four and five wide (there)."

Because the racing surface at Daytona is extremely slick in summer heat, Stewart says handling will be at a premium in Saturday's race.

"Handling's always a big issue here at Daytona," Stewart said. "That's what makes it so much fun, because it's a handling issue. It's not just unveiling strategy of being in the right place at the right time, as much as you have to have a good balanced car to get to the front and stay at the front."

Max Papis failed to make the race because of fewer qualifying attempts this season than other cars required to make the field on speed. Mike Wallace didn't make the race because he was a late entry. This is the fourth qualifying rainout of the season.

Sam Hornish Jr., who was involved in the practice crash with Biffle, also will start from the rear after going to a back-up car.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News

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