Shootin For The Shootout

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The pressure is really on for a few of the top Winston Cup drivers during Friday’s first-round qualifying for the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Time is just about out for their chances to get into next year’s Bud Shootout in Daytona.

Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt is among those drivers who is seeking to make it into the exclusive race for pole winners from the previous season. Not only is Earnhardt feeling the heat to grab a pole in Miami or the remaining event at Atlanta, he is second in the points battle and facing what is almost an insurmountable 218-point lead by Bobby Labonte. Labonte can clinch the title on Sunday if he finishes in the Top 5.

Another driver in need of a pole to make the Shootout is Mark Martin, who has earned at least one top-starting spot every season since 1988. If he doesn’t win one at Homestead or Atlanta, though, he’ll be watching the race as a spectator.

And that, to many drivers, is a huge disadvantage because the Shootout serves as their first competitive drafting test leading into the Daytona 500.

Three other top drivers - Ken Schrader, Johnny Benson and Matt Kenseth - are also looking for their first poles of the year. So too are Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott, Jerry Nadeau, Jimmy Spencer, Michael Waltrip and Bobby Hamilton.

The math will lead you to the truth that some very good drivers are going to be watching the non-points race on Feb. 11 instead of competing in it.

"Sure we’d like to be in the Bud Shootout," said Benson. "We can do it this weekend at Homestead. This team sat on the pole last year with David Green and that was a heck of an accomplishment. But that was last year. We think we will be good this year, but you never know until you get there and qualifying starts. We’d like to get in the Bud Shootout, and there aren’t too many more opportunities to do that.

"We had a pretty good car for qualifying in Phoenix and ended up fourth, so it would be nice if we can be that good again Friday. But, remember it’s the race that pays the most in terms of money and points."

With that the case, many teams tested extensively at the 1.5-mile Homestead track in preparation for this weekend’s activities. That fact, Benson explains, is why he expects a much better race than last year’s inaugural event at the track.

"Testing with a lot of cars has its advantages," Benson said. "When there are that many cars there, you have a lot more cars to compare yourself to. If you were there by yourself, you would walk out of there at the end of the day wondering just where you were. You might know the time you ran, but you don’t know how that compares to someone else who was there doing the same thing in the same conditions. If you were faster than the track record in testing, and then you come back and 20 cars break the track record, then you weren’t as good as what you thought you were."

And to make the Bud Shootout, several drivers know they have to be really good either this weekend or next.

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