Big names in danger of missing the opener

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. --- Tucked away in the back corner of the garage, far from the overwhelming attention surrounding NASCAR's biggest stars, a world-class group of drivers went overlooked in their quest to make the Daytona 500.

It was a surreal scene: A former NASCAR champion, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and a Formula One star.

Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin and Jacques Villeneuve were fighting to make the 500 field. None were guaranteed a spot, and all must race their way into the field in one of today's two qualifying races.

Only four spots are available. And for all of them, it could be their last chance for the Daytona 500. Jarrett will retire in March, Marlin is running a partial schedule and Villeneuve needs sponsorship to run a full season.

"I haven't really allowed myself to think in the direction," Jarrett, a three-time Daytona 500 winner and former series champion, said Wednesday.

"We need to stay in a positive frame of mind in that we are going to be able to race our way in. It would be disappointing to say the very least, because this is going to be my last opportunity at Daytona. So I want to be involved in it."

Only the two fastest in last week's time trials -- Jimmie Johnson and Michael Waltrip -- are locked in. Another 34 positions are decided by the top 35 in points from last season.

Marlin said the system is unfair, pointing to former open-wheel drivers Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., who will race after inheriting top 35 points from last season.

"You've got a bunch of guys who got into cars that are locked into the top 35 in points and have never even started a Daytona 500," Marlin said. "That's how the rules are, and we knew that coming down there, I just think there's a better way to do it."


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