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Published: Thursday, 2/17/2005

Gatorade to quench 500 thirst for just 4

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - There will be some desperate drivers in today's twin Gatorade 150 qualifying races. There will be some cautious drivers out there, too, and some who will roll the dice if the opportunity is there.

The two 60-lap sprints represent the final stage in qualifying for Sunday's Daytona 500, but there are only a precious few invitations to that prestigious dance still available.

NASCAR's new qualifying rules have created an interesting dynamic.

The top 35 teams in car-owner points from last season are guaranteed starting spots in the 43-car field. Four additional drivers put up qualifying speeds last Sunday that were fast enough to get them in - Jason Leffler, Boris Said, Mike Skinner and John Andretti.

That means there are 18 drivers battling for just four remaining starting positions, and two will come from each Gatorade race. To make the 500, you'll need to finish first or second among the non-qualified drivers in your race.

"We might have to take some chances," said Hermie Sadler, who ran just 16 races last year and was 44th in points. "We'll need to be aware of where those other cars are - the eight or nine in our race who are going for those two spots. We have to race fast and race smart to make this work out."

Others on the bubble include Robby Gordon, who has branched out on his own as a team owner this season and does not qualify on last year's 23rd-place finish in the points race, and Derrike Cope, Randy LaJoie, Morgan Shepherd and Stanton Barrett.

"This is going to be very difficult," Barrett said following yesterday's practice runs at Daytona International Speedway. "There are some very strong teams out there. I think this will be a real challenge - it'll be fun - but a big challenge."

Road-course specialist Boris Said, who made the field on the strength of posting the 11th-fastest qualifying time on Sunday, said he will follow the lead of teammates Scott Riggs and Joe Nemechek.

"I'm going to be like Tom Cruise in Top Gun tomorrow - I'm not going to leave my wingman - whether it's Scott or Joe, whoever I tuck in behind, that's where I'm going to stay," Said commented.

"For good or bad, that's where I'm going to be. My goals are to keep a conservative approach and keep learning from my mistakes and form a better game plan for Sunday."

Nextel Cup heavyweight Jimmie Johnson, who nailed down a position in the front row for the 500 next to pole sitter Dale Jarrett, will be one of the drivers playing it safe.

"We're hopeful that we're able to keep it up near the front and to stay out of trouble," Johnson said. "If we find ourselves in a situation that we don't like and the chance of losing a race car, we'll find our way out of it. For the most part, the car has been great and I think we'll be able to stay in the front. We'd like to get another trophy."

HE AIN'T HEAVY: Brotherly love might play a role in who comes out of the Gatorade Duels locking up a starting position in the Daytona 500.

In the first Twin 150, Kerry Earnhardt will be part of a group of drivers trying to run his way into the 500. One row behind him will be his step-brother Dale Earnhardt Jr. If Junior decides to give him a push and help him make the Sunday race, Kerry said he would be grateful. "If he does that, I'll sign the bumper and take it over to his house and give it to him," Kerry Earnhardt said.

IN THE ARMY: Joe Nemechek, driving the U.S. Army No. 1 Chevy Monte Carlo, was the fifth-fastest qualifier for the 500, so he does not need to take any risks today. But he will push it for the sponsor.

"This is good for the car owners," Nemechek said. "It's one of those things here at Daytona that's kind of strange. Heck, we're guaranteed in, so why do we even need to race? But, the Army pays us to come here, they want us to be up front in these races and I'm here to win."

PLATE TECHTONICS: It might not seem like much, but NASCAR reduced the size of the restrictor plates that must be used in cars competing in the Daytona 500 by

1/64th of an inch. But Jimmie Johnson said he can tell the difference. "With a smaller plate, the cars don't pull up as easily as they did in the past," Johnson said.



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