Speedweeks Surprises

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Where did the off-season go? While seeing cars actually competing on the track at Daytona was a welcome sight, I still couldn't help but wonder how the time between last season's finale at Homestead and the start of "Speedweeks" went so fast.

For many in Sunday's Daytona 500 qualifying session, the off-season time went faster than their cars. You have to turn the speedchart upside down in order to see the names of such NASCAR stars as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. While Stewart's qualifying prowess isn't as well defined, the performances by usual Daytona Golden Boy Gordon and last year's pole dominator Newman is downright shocking.

On the other end of the spectrum what a difference a year makes for the Ford camp. Taking four of the first five spots, led by the front row sweep of Greg Biffle and Elliott Sadler, the Ford contingent ended the opening weekend as the dominating make. Dale Jarrett's stirring win in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout gave Ford a perfect "Speedweeks" record.

After suffering through one of the most miserable years in its legendary history, Robert Yates Racing has come out a blazing in 2004. A partnership with arch-rival yet Ford compadre Jack Roush as well as a new aerodynamically-superior Taurus body style has been the formula for the early success.

"We took both the cars to the wind tunnel before we got to Daytona and thought we were in real good shape with what we saw from those results," Jarrett said. "We tested well down here in January but really didn't know how good a car we had until we unloaded off the hauler on Friday. To say we're thrilled about the start to the weekend and excited about the rest of this week is an understatement."

While the Ford showing was somewhat expected, the performance by Kevin LePage and the Morgan-McClure Motorsports team was anything but. After losing primary sponsor Kodak, the team's future was in jeopardy most of the winter. But a new sponsorship with Yoketv.com came together and LePage promptly went out and recorded the sixth fastest time on Sunday.

"We have been talking to the sponsor since the end of last season," said team owner Larry McClure. "We are proud to get the deal together and be able to debut the car at Daytona. We believe we are on the ground floor of something new and exciting. I am personally happy with our results. Everyone on the team is enthusiastic. There are many smiles around the garage today. With the right break and if the Lord keeps watching over us, we could be real competitive this year. We are very serious about what we are doing."

Winners and losers. That's what racing is all about. It will be interesting to watch who smiles and who grimaces as the week, and the season, wears on.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2004

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