Dont Pass On The 125S

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. –- Last year’s Gatorade 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway were thrilling. If you call virtually no passing and one driver leading almost the entire way in both 50-lap races thrilling.

One could have taken a short nap during the 2000 qualifiers and not missed a thing. Bill Elliott took the lead on the first lap from Dale Jarrett and was never headed on his way to victory in the first race, while Ricky Rudd held the point from green flag to checkered flag in the second event.

Don’t look for that to happen on Thursday, when the Winston Cup cars take to the track for the all-important 125-mile qualifiers, a pair of races that will set positions 3-30 for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

The new aerodynamic rules set down by NASCAR prior to last October’s race at Talladega Superspeedway seem to be working. The fall Talladega event was one of the best races in recent memory, while last Sunday’s Budweiser Shootout produced some great racing as well. There were 19 lead changes during the 70-lap All-Star race.

“After Daytona last year, I was very vocal about how bad the racing was here,” Dale Earnhardt said. “The 400 was a bad race, too, without a lot of passing. There just wasn’t a whole lot of excitement. With the new aero rules, it looks like all that has changed, and we’re back to racing again here at Daytona. This is what the fans want to see.”

“That (the Shootout) was a great spectacle for the fans,” said Tony Stewart, who passed Earnhardt late in the going to win Sunday’s Budweiser Shootout. “There was a lot of jockeying going on, and you could actually get out and pass. Hopefully we’ll see the same kind of racing in the 125s and the 500.”

“The new rules have definitely changed the way the cars pull up to each other and the rate of speed you’re going,” said Elliott Sadler, who’ll start the second 125-miler from the 16th position. “One thing with the new rules, if I make a mistake in the draft and fall back, I can pull right back up to them. It makes it more comfortable and more stable. So, the 125s and the Daytona 500 will be exciting. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Positions 31-36 for the Daytona 500 will be set by the best of the rest from first and second round qualifying times. Positions 37-43 will be set through provisionals, going off the final owner points standings from the 2000 season.

The only drivers who don’t have to worry about their performance Thursday are Bill Elliott and Stacy Compton, who both drive Dodge Intrepids. Elliott won the pole for the Daytona 500 with a fast lap of 183.565 mph. Compton finished third in qualifying Saturday, but moved up to the second spot when Jerry Nadeau’s Chevrolet was disqualified following tech inspection.

Both Elliott, a four-time 125-mile qualifying race winner, and Compton, in just his second Gatorade 125, will start on the pole for their respective races.

With only one Dodge in the Budweiser Shootout Sunday, the jury is still out on just how the new Intrepid will perform during race conditions at Daytona International Speedway. Elliott finished 12th in the 175-mile Budweiser Shootout.

The verdict could come in as early as Thursday afternoon, when the rest of the nine Dodges will race in heavy traffic. Sterling Marlin will start fourth in the first race, while Ward Burton will start third and John Andretti eighth in the second event.

Numbers from a recent wind tunnel test with all four manufacturers participating revealed the Dodges to have an advantage over the Pontiacs, Chevrolets and Fords when it came the amount of drag – or air resistance – in the cars.

Winston Cup Director Gary Nelson said no aerodynamic rules changes would be made prior to the 125s, but didn’t rule out a possible change prior to the Daytona 500.

“The Dodge has a good car and whether it’s in qualifying or race time, it’s going to be a good car,” said Jarrett, driver of the No. 88 UPS Taurus, who’ll be looking for his second 125-mile qualifying race victory. “Everybody is the same way – blocked off in qualifying – so when you open it up that doesn’t make them come back to where we’re going to be, either. They’ve built a superior car to everybody, somehow, but handling is still going to come into play. When you have an advantage like they have drag-wise, you can’t build enough horsepower and enough handling to overcome that.”

“I don’t think you’re going to see the full hand of the Dodge until we get to Sunday, and not only Dodge, but Tony Stewart, who was pretty strong the other day in that Pontiac,” Rudd said. “If you look at the wind tunnel numbers from the other day, it’s pretty easy to see why these cars are so dominant.

“A lot of that is strictly dictated by the size of the spoiler that NASCAR has on the Ford. We have to run a bigger spoiler, therefore we make more drag, so we’re sort of unfairly penalized, but we’re not going to give up. We’re going to run as hars as we can and try to win this thing.”

Stewart, a six-time race winner at year ago, will be looking for his first ever Gatorade 125 victory Thursday. He’ll start alongside Compton in the second race and is a heavy favorite to take home another piece of hardware.

Stewart’s teammate, defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte, won a 125-miler in 1999. He’ll start 11th in Thursday’s first event.

Jeff Gordon has won a pair of Daytona 500s (1997 and 1999), but has won only one 125-mile qualifying race during his illustrious career. Surprisingly enough, that came during his rookie season in 1993.

Gordon will start the first 125-miler from the third position behind Elliott and Jarrett.

Earnhardt is certainly no stranger to victory lane following the 125s. “The Intimidator,” who has won the Daytona 500 but once, has won 12 qualifying races, including 10 in a row from 1990 to 1999.

If he’s going to get there again, however, he’ll have to come from the middle of the pack in the first 125, where he starts from the outside of Row 7.

Sterling Marlin is the only other active driver to have won a 125-miler. He did that in 1998.

And then there are those just fighting for a spot in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Brett Bodine, the driver of the No. 11 Ralph’s Supermarket Taurus, is one. Bodine, whose team finished 36th in the owner points standings a year ago, will start from the 23rd position in the first race.

About the only thing Bodine has going for him was his second-round qualifying speed Monday of 180.941 mph.

Rick Mast, the driver of the No. 50 Midwest Transit Chevrolet, could also have problems. Mast, whose team finished 45th in the 2000 owner point standings, starts from near the back of the pack in the first 125-miler after a qualifying speed of 178.856 mph.

Mast will most likely need to place in the Top 14 of his qualifying event to make the 43-car field.

“The 125s are great races to run, and I love them,” said Robert Pressley, driver of the No. 77 Jasper Engines Taurus, who’ll start from the 24th position in the second race. “But, if you go down to Daytona and you are struggling and you haven’t got a time to fall back on, then the 125s are not fun.

“Anything can happen. You are just sitting out there trying to figure and see what could happen, especially what could happen to put you out of the race (the Daytona 500).”

Others who might be a longshot to make the Daytona are Dwayne Leik, Carl Long, Norm Benning and Derrike Cope.

Rookie Jason Leffler, driver of the No. 01 Cingular Wireless Dodge, will start 24th in the first 125-mile race, but could be protected by the fact his team finished 28th in the Winston Cup owner points a year ago.

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