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Published: 2/20/2005

No holding back in stock car's No. 1 event

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Maybe the logic does not work in the rest of the sports world, but it all makes perfect sense every February here on the Atlantic side of the Sunshine State.

There is no saving the best for last in stock car racing.

The left-turning troupe puts it all on the line right out of the gate. Today's Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the year, and it's the first one. It's the World Series in April, or the Super Bowl in September.

Richard Petty, who had the 200th and final victory of his long career at Daytona International Speedway, said the Daytona 500 has to be the first and the biggest and the best. It's tradition, according to "The King," and he thinks it is perfectly logical.

"The Daytona 500 as we know it, as our Super Bowl, would never work at the end of the season," Petty said. "Nobody has raced anywhere in the country for three months, and everybody's been cooped up, and they just can't wait to get to the next race. That first race is here.

"It's wound up being a worldwide draw just because of that. What's so good about this race is that you've got new sponsors, new drivers, new cars, new paint jobs and you've got all of the anticipation of three months built up. Nobody knows who's going to come out of the box being the best that year. So, that just makes it that much better."

When they line up the best stock car drivers in the world this afternoon for the big event, veteran Dale Jarrett, a three-time Daytona 500 champion, will lead the charge. Jarrett, the 1999 Nextel Cup champion who dropped to 26th in 2003 and 15th last year, likes the way his car is running.

"I think we can be considered a car and a team to beat," Jarrett said. "We've never stopped working hard, never stopped pushing, and we come into this race feeling like we can take a pretty strong run at it."

Jimmie Johnson, second in the points race the last two seasons, starts second on the outside of the front row. Jarrett expects some of his strongest challengers to be Johnson and Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who starts 15th.

"You can see the intensity on that team," Jarrett said. "You see a walk and a talk with those guys that are very reminiscent of past champions. Jeff Gordon is a past champion in this race, and Jimmie Johnson has shown he can win anywhere. I think they'll be the team we'll have to contend with if we're going to have a chance to win this thing."

Jarrett is also well aware that this race has pretty much belonged to the forces of Dale Earnhardt Enterprises in the recent past. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won last year's 500, while DEI teammate Michael Waltrip won in 2001 and 2003. The same two ran first and second in one of the qualifying races on Thursday.

"You can't take away the fact of what DEI has done here over the years," Jarrett said. "I'm sure when we get into drafting situations, Junior and Michael are both very good in those situations, but I'm not sure that the dominance that they've shown is going to be there."

The sentimental favorite in the 500 has to be veteran Rusty Wallace, who is making his final run in the race as he starts a farewell tour. Wallace started racing Winston Cup full-time in 1984.

"I've got this one more shot,'' Wallace said. "I've tried my whole life. I've told my crew when I get back here to Daytona, I'd better have the best car I've ever had in my life. We've tried, but we're going to have to try harder than I've ever tried.

"The Daytona 500 is still the granddaddy of them all. It's a race that I haven't won and I'm going to try my darndest to win it."

Kevin Harvick, who was second in yesterday's Busch Series race at the Speedway, is one of a big pack of drivers who says he feels confident that he can still win the Daytona 500.

"We've got a good car and I finished fourth with it here in 2003, so I'm not concerned about that at all," Harvick said. "Everybody wants to win in every race we run, but in the Daytona 500, I think we all push just a little bit harder."



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