Earlier this week, a list of favourites for the Daytona 500 pole probably wouldn't have included Bill Elliott, but that perception changed dramatically during Saturday's two NASCAR Sprint Cup practice sessions.

Elliott topped the speed charts in both, as drivers made single-car runs around 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in preparation for Sunday's pole qualifying session.

Driving the #21 Wood Brothers Ford, Elliott posted a top speed of 187.950mph and served notice to the rest of the field that he not only expects to make the season-opening points race on speed, but also has a legitimate shot at securing the top starting spot.

Only the top two starting positions for the Daytona 500 will be determined Sunday. The rest of the field will be ordered after Thursday's Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races.

With his car outside the top 35 in 2008 owner points, Elliott must qualify for the race on speed or through the Duels, unless two more recent past Cup champions -- Tony Stewart and Terry Labonte -- do likewise. If both Stewart and Labonte race their way into the 500, Elliott would have a past champion's provisional starting spot as a safety valve.

Elliott, however, believes that improvements to the Wood Brothers' programme late last year will put him in a position to make the race on present, rather than past, performance.

"I think we were getting better last fall, and I think that was overshadowed," he said after turning a lap at 187.645mph in the first practice session, "The Chase and everything else overshadows what you do.

"The problem with this whole sport is there is a select few that gets all the media and, when you're not in every week, it's tough to find your place at the end of the day. For us, our first goal is to come down here and take it one step at a time and run as well as we can each opportunity we can and see where it unfolds."

Elliott hopes to avoid a repeat of 2008, when the Wood Brothers car was quick in practice but qualified poorly after changes to the set-up and failed to make the field through the Duels.

"You can't tell about this business," the veteran admitted, "Right now, we just need to beat the 'go-or-go-homers' - that's where we need to concentrate and let the rest of it fall where it may. We've got to not make any mistakes and see what [Sunday] brings."

Of interest to Elliott, Stewart looked strong in his new #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, running 15th in the first practice session and tenth in the second.

Behind both Elliott and Stewart, Scott Riggs (19th), AJ Allmendinger (21st) and Travis Kvapil (23rd) were fastest in the second session among those not locked into the 500 field. Dale Earnhardt Jr was third quickest in both practice sessions, while last year's pole winner - three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson - was eighth in the first practice and eleventh in the second.

by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service