Sandbagging Ends At The Beach

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DAYTONA BEACH. Fla. – The testing, the practice, the offseason work – it all ends at 12:05 p.m. ET Saturday afternoon when Jerry Nadeau steers his car onto Daytona International Speedway for the first official qualifying lap of 2002 in qualifying for the Daytona 500.

And it’s the first official lap, period, of 2002. To drivers, that couldn’t come too soon. There will be no more excuses, no more whining over rules, no more “sandbagging.”

“All the whining and complaining is pretty much over at this point,” Kevin Harvick said. “You’ve got what you’ve got.”

Bill Elliott won the pole for last year’s Daytona 500, and he’s among a handful of favorites for this year’s pole. Who is a good bet, Elliott wouldn’t say. But he echoed Harvick’s comments.

“I don’t know how everybody’s going stack up,” Elliott said. “I don’t think everybody showed everything they had across the board. The B.S. will stop here Saturday afternoon.”

Only the front row will be determined Saturday, with the starting order for Thursday’s Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races set in Saturday’s time trials.

In preseason testing last month, rookie Jimmie Johnson was fastest in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy. And Johnson did nothing to slow down, turning the fastest laps in both Friday practice sessions.

Teammates Jeff Gordon and Jerry Nadeau were also fast. The Dodges have been quick, too, especially Ward Burton and Elliott.

Most of the complaining in the offseason, though, were Ford drivers. The Taurus was slow in testing, prompting the sandbagging debate. Ford drivers, or so critics claimed, were going slow on purpose, hoping to get a rules break and give them an unfair advantage.

Ford drivers pleaded innocent, but they got the rules concession, a quarter-inch shaved off the rear spoiler. And guess what? Ford’s Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett were in the Top 7 of both sessions Friday.

“It seems like the last couple of years down here, the rules have been kind to the Chevrolets or the Dodges, for that matter,” Rudd said. “It seems we’re a little closer to them than we have been. I know the last time down here, we didn’t qualify in the Top 20.

“This particular time, I don’t predict a front-row position. I see maybe a fifth or 10th position, which is better than 20th. … I don’t know that you’re going to have a Ford in the Top 10. I don’t think we’ve seen everything from the top teams. We were pretty much all out.”

Still, other Ford drivers say a Taurus has no chance at the pole.

“It would be like it’s snowing on the race track,” said Kurt Busch, who was buried on the speed charts Friday. “That would be a sight to see anyway.”

Geoffrey Bodine, who was fast in testing and not bad Friday in James Finch’s underfunded Ford, agreed.

“For qualifying, I’d be really shocked if a Ford wins the pole,” Bodine said.

But if you want a real shocker, pick a Pontiac. Johnny Benson was the fastest Grand Prix on Friday, but he was only ninth-fastest overall in the second practice. Pontiac is the oldest make in the Winston Cup garage area, but the Grand Prix’s measurements have stayed the same.

“It makes it difficult,” Benson said. “I guess the only thing we’re not real happy about is
that you go through the testing, and we felt we were decent. But some of the guys weren’t, so they complained and got rule changes, and all of a sudden they’re at the top of the sheet, too. It’s going to be interesting tomorrow to see how bad everybody is or how good everybody is.”

You’d think Stacy Compton would be good, as he won two poles and qualified second and third in the four restrictor-plate races last year. But that was in a Dodge. He’s in A.J. Foyt’s Pontiac now.

“Well, with the rules as they are, I’m not expecting a whole lot,” Compton said. “It’s a little disappointing because I think the worst that we qualified all last year at plate races was third. I think the worst plate qualifying run I’ve ever had was 13th, so this is probably going to be a little disappointing because maybe we’re not on level playing ground.”

Does it all matter, though? Sterling Marlin said it “doesn’t matter where you qualify at Daytona” because the draft and a good-handling car can propel a car to the front.

“I remember (driving) the (No.) 4 car here four or five years ago, we qualified about 40th and ended up leading,” Marlin said. “I think Gordon qualified 24th or 25th a few years ago and ended up winning the race. It doesn’t matter where you qualify here. If you’re not first or second, it doesn’t make any difference.”

Gordon, though, disagreed.

“There’s prestige,” Gordon said. “You want to be on the front row because you want to be locked in. But you really want a good starting position no matter what, even if it is just for the 125 because it’s going to be hard to pass. It’s going to be a little bit different race than last year. A good starting position is going to do a lot more for you this year than it has in the past.”

So maybe the teams will try as hard as they can in qualifying.

“We’ll find out on Saturday, won’t we?” Gordon said.

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