- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2005

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Qualifying for the Daytona 500 always has been unique on the NASCAR circuit.

Dale Jarrett seems to have found a way around the confusing set of rules — go faster than anybody else and they have to start you up front.

Jarrett pushed his UPS Ford to a lap of 188.312 mph yesterday to capture his third pole for the 500, which officially kicks off the nine-month NASCAR season Sunday. He has won the event, stock-car racing’s Super Bowl, three times and was the last driver to win it from the pole five years ago.

Jimmie Johnson, who had the second-fastest time, was the only other driver whose starting position was decided; he will start on the outside of the front row.

Jeff Gordon, the favorite to win the pole entering qualifying, had the third-fastest time, but he still will have to race in the two 150-mile qualifying races Thursday to determine his starting position. Kevin Harvick had the fourth-best time of the afternoon with Joe Nemechek fifth.

Whether yesterday signals the start of a comeback for Jarrett remains to be seen. Last year the Hickory, N.C., resident experienced one of his worst seasons, not winning once in the 36 races he started for the Robert Yates racing team. He had won 31 races before last season, including at least one a year since 1992.

“I think we can be considered a car and a team to beat,” said Jarrett, who has been suffering from the flu for the better part of a week, something that didn’t bother him too much yesterday. “This is a really good race car. These guys have been working on [it] since last October. It’s just a great testament to the work [the shop guys] do.”

The same cannot be said for the team’s performance just 24 hours earlier. Jarrett started on the pole in the Budweiser Shootout, an all-star event, and quickly found his way to the rear of the field. He finished 15th out of 20 starters.

NASCAR changed the rules for qualifying this season to ensure consistent finishers are rewarded with a spot every week. The top 35 teams in the owners’ points standings get in automatically, leaving up to eight spots open on any given week in the 43-car field. Daytona previously had a convoluted system with a wide variety of possible scenarios for making the field, but the track had to employ the new system this year.

As a result, 35 drivers entered yesterday’s qualifying cycle with a place in the field assured no matter how poorly they finished. In fact, Jeff Green, driving the No. 43 Petty Racing entry, blew an engine and did not finish but is in the race because the team had enough points from last season.

That left 22 hopefuls trying to snare one of four spots up for grabs yesterday, which brought the field to 39. The top two nonsecured drivers from each of Thursday’s qualifying races will win the remaining four spots for a field of 43.

Jason Leffler, a rookie driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, was the top qualifier among those seeking an open spot. He qualified sixth overall, driving the FedEx Chevrolet with a speed of 187.715. Also joining the field were Boris Said, a road-racing specialist; veteran Mike Skinner; and John Andretti, also trying a comeback after sitting out most of last season.

But Jarrett, 48 and nearing the end of a long career, was the star of the day.

“It means a lot,” Jarrett said when asked about winning another pole. “I think since I came to Robert Yates Racing in 1995 and we won the pole for the 500, I saw from that very first test session just how much this race means to Robert and Doug Yates. That was probably as intense a test session as I’d ever been in. [They] were doing things I’d never seen done before to get ready for a race. They want to be the fastest car here when they arrive and the fastest when they leave. I’ve understood that, and I’ve been the beneficiary of that hard work and effort many times since then.”

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