Originally created 02/10/01

Drivers hope to win pole at Daytona



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Robby Gordon and Stacy Compton were two of the three fastest drivers during four hours of practice Friday at the Daytona International Speedway, but neither seemed overly optimistic about their chances to win the pole today for the Daytona 500.

"There are guys out there with bigger bullets (engines) they haven't used," Compton said.

Gordon, Michael Waltrip, Compton and Brett Bodine were the four fastest drivers during a pair of two-hour sessions. While their speeds provided a moral victory of sorts, they said it probably won't translate to a victory during time trials.

Qualifying for the season's biggest race starts at 2 p.m. (Fox). The top two speeds in this afternoon's session will start on the front row of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18; the rest of the starting positions will be determined by the results of two 125-mile qualifying races Thursday.

"Horsepower is the key," Gordon said after running 182.382 mph in the afternoon session. "This Morgan-McClure team knows how to make horsepower. I knew we'd be strong here. The 4 car (Kodak Chevrolet) is always good here."

Morgan-McClure has won three Daytona 500 races in the past 11 years. Gordon, a former IndyCar driver who operated his own stock car team a year ago, said his new team decided to put its qualifying engine under the hood before the team left Virginia last Wednesday.

He says other teams have special qualifying engines during time trials, so he's not hopeful he will remain at the top of the speed charts once the speeds become official.

"What we have is on the table," Gordon said. "We're not winning practice by a big margin. We don't know what other people have. If we finish in the top five (during qualifying), I'd take that as a compliment.

"It's going to change tomorrow. There's a lot of parts to be changed between now and qualifying. It will change the field. What this does is help the chemistry of a new team. We knew we needed to be toward the top of the chart (Friday) because this was the best we had."

Compton, one of 10 drivers in the new Dodge Intrepid, said many of the top drivers still haven't shown their true strength.

"We watched Dale Jarrett from the top of the truck, and he wasn't running the fast line," Compton said. "And you know he's going to be fast."

Jarrett was clocked at 181.943 mph, taking a slower route around the 2.5-mile, tri-oval. It was the fifth-fastest speed posted in either practice session.

Waltrip, who will drive a Chevrolet Monte Carlo for Dale Earnhardt Inc. this year, was second-quickest at 182.212 mph. Like Gordon, his best lap came in the afternoon.

Compton was third at 182.127 mph; Bodine's Ford Taurus was fourth at 182.057.

Jarrett was fifth, followed by Ward Burton's Dodge in sixth at 181.851 mph, Ricky Craven's Ford in seventh at 181.803, Andy Houston's Ford in eighth at 181.748, Sterling Marlin's Dodge in ninth at 181.558 and Terry Labonte's Chevrolet in 10th at 181.528.

Based on the practice speeds, some drivers who usually are a threat to win the pole at Daytona have a lot of work to do between the second session Friday and this afternoon's time trials.

Jeff Gordon's best lap was 181.441 mph, while Bill Elliott only ran 180.480 mph, Dale Earnhardt ran 180.307 and defending NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte ran 179.881.

More than anything else, Friday's session was a huge relief to the Dodge camp. A month ago, Dodge was off the pace established by Chevrolet, Ford and Pontiac. But with three of the nine fastest speeds in Friday's practice, the new Intrepid appears to be more race-ready than ever.

"We're ecstatic that we're in the hunt," said Bob Wildberger, senior manager for Dodge's NASCAR operations. "Now it's up to the teams. They know they've got the equipment they can work with. It's competitive, and it's up to the teams to take it from here."

Dodge's flagship teams - Evernham Motorsports' Bill Elliott and Casey Atwood - didn't run well Friday.

"We're trying to see what the car's got," Elliott said. "We've got to find more speed."

Evernham isn't worried. He knows he's got eight days to find answers before it matters most - the Daytona 500.

"I'm happy with the Dodges overall," he said. "I feel good about (qualifying). We have to be realistic about our expectations. We're a rookie team, and this is our first race. My goal is to get Bill in the top 15 (in time trials) and Casey in the top 25."

Elliott was 25th-fastest on Friday, while Atwood was 37th.

Each car will get a warmup lap followed by two laps on the clock. The fastest of two laps will mark the speed of record.

Cars have the option to re-qualify Monday to re-establish a speed of record. Fifty-two cars are expected to participate in time trials. The field for the Daytona 500 is limited to 43 cars.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com.