Alan Kulwicki, who has not won a race this year on the Winston Cup stock car circuit, put himself in position to win close to $500,000 when he earned the pole position for Sunday's Atlanta Journal 500.
Kulwicki drove his Ford Thunderbird around Atlanta International Raceway's 1.522-mile high-banked superspeedway Friday at 179.112 m.p.h. for his sixth pole of the 29-race season, which will end Sunday.
By winning the No. 1 starting position, Kulwicki became eligible for the Unocal Challenge bonus, which goes to any driver who wins a Winston Cup race from the pole. The bonus of $7,600 for each race has not been collected since Rusty Wallace won the Goodwrench 500 at Rockingham, N.C., the second race of the season, on March 5.
The $7,600 was rolled over each time until it reached $205,200 for Sunday's race. The raceway management offered to match the prize, putting it at $410,400 for the season finale. That, plus the estimated $50,000 for winning the race, puts Kulwicki in a windfall situation.
"We've been in a position to win four or five times this year, but something always seemed to happen," Kulwicki said. "To win here would erase a lot of the year's frustrations. Half a million dollars can make up for a whole lot of problems."
Kulwicki also won the pole for the Atlanta race last spring but wrecked and finished 16th.
"This car is different from the one that was on the pole before," he said. "This is the one that ran so well at Daytona."
In the Daytona 500, Kulwicki was leading with three laps to go when he had to pit for a cut tire and finished seventh. In the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July, he finished fifth.
"We won't approach the race any differently just because of the Unocal bonus," he said. "We'll just go out and run as hard as we can for as long as we can without abusing anything. Then, if we're in a position to win when the race is winding down, we'll do whatever it takes to win."
Kulwicki, an engineering graduate of the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, is one of only two college graduates who have ever won a major NASCAR race. He won at Phoenix in 1988. The late Mark Donohue was the other.
Only three drivers in 30 years have won this race from the pole: Wallace, last year; Bill Elliott, in 1987; and Fireball Roberts, in the first race run on the track in 1960.
Wallace, who can win the $1-million Winston Cup championship by finishing 18th or better Sunday, qualified his Pontiac fourth and will start behind Ken Schrader, who qualified second at 178.534, and alongside one of his two challengers, Dale Earnhardt, who ran 177.792.
"I'm satisfied with that," Wallace said after his 177.572-m.p.h. lap. "I'm just thinking about the championship. The pole doesn't mean that much, not to me at least. It's small potatoes compared to winning the championship."
Mark Martin, the other driver with a slim chance of overtaking Wallace, had one of his worst qualifying days this year with a lap of 175.054, which put him in 20th position. Martin also had won six poles this season. Because he qualified second three times and Kulwicki only twice, Martin won the $30,000 season pole bonus.
"We didn't run good in practice this morning. The car was too tight, and it didn't get any better in qualifying," Martin said. "It was just what I was afraid of, but now we'll work on getting it set up for the race. We'll have some catching up to do, but (Bill) Elliott did it at Phoenix."
Elliott won the Autoworks 500 two weeks ago from the 13th starting position.