Elliott Leads Dodge Charge to Win Daytona 500 Pole
For two weeks, during unofficial preseason practice and official Daytona 500 practice, the Dodges weren’t running fast enough to get out of their own way.
On Saturday, the first day speeds really became important, Dodge chieftain Ray Evernham turned his troops loose and the new Intrepids took over Daytona International Speedway.
Former 500 winner Bill Elliott, a proven campaigner chosen by Evernham to lead the Dodge return to Winston Cup after an absence of two decades, showed a remarkable improvement in speed to take the pole for next Sunday’s Daytona 500. Elliott, who had been no better than 30th in preseason speeds and only 25th fastest Friday, ran 183.565 mph in his red No. 9 Dodge owned by Evernham.
Thanks to a disqualification of the second-fastest qualifier, Jerry Nadeau’s Chevrolet, another Dodge driven by Stacy Compton will start alongside Elliott on the front row.
While Elliott and Compton are guaranteed front-row starts, the remainder of the 500 field will be determined by two 125-mile qualifying races Thursday and the qualifying speeds of those not finishing 14th or better in one of Thursday’s races.
Nadeau, whose car was found to be a half-inch too low in post-race inspection after posting a speed of 182.763 mph, will be permitted to requalify Monday.
Elliott, 45, who had won 49 poles driving a Ford throughout his career before signing with Evernham, is no stranger to the front row at Daytona, but because of new restrictor-plate rules, the speeds are much slower. In 1987, when Elliott was known as “Awesome Bill from Donaldsonville,” his pole speed was 210.364 mph, still the record for the 2.5-mile track.
“Back then, when you left pit road you didn’t know if you’d come back,” said Elliott. “Now, you know you’ll come back, you just don’t know how long it will take.”
It will be the fourth time for Elliott to start on the Daytona 500 pole. In 1985 and 1987 he won from the pole. He also started first in 1986.
It was the first pole for Dodge since April 1, 1978, when the late Neil Bonnett was fastest at Bristol, Tenn.
The obvious question about the sudden emergence of Dodge speed--sandbagging, the art of not showing your hand before the main event--was answered by Gary Nelson, NASCAR’s series director and the man responsible for maintaining the proper balance between the four makes--Ford, Chevrolet, Pontiac and Dodge.
“If you look at the first five qualifiers and you find all four represented, I think that answers the question,” he said. “One of the four had to have two qualifiers in the five, it just happened that Dodge had the top two.”
Defending 500 winner Dale Jarrett qualified third in a Ford, Tony Stewart was fourth in a Pontiac and Jeff Gordon fifth in a Chevrolet.
Nelson also said that rear suspension parts from Nadeau’s disqualified car had been taken to the NASCAR garage for further inspection.
“When a car is lower, it goes faster,” Nelson said. “What we want to find is how it got a half-inch lower after his run than it was when we inspected it before the run.”
Evernham, the crew chief during Gordon’s three Winston Cup championships, credited an unusual team concept for Dodge’s surprising performance.
“We have five teams involved--my own, Bill Davis’, Chip Ganassi’s, the Pettys and Mark Melling--but the way we have operated we are one big team working together,” Evernham said. “We share information and we work in the wind tunnel together and I think everyone benefits from it. Bill is our anchor and I think today you can see why.”
Among other Dodge drivers, Ward Burton was sixth, Sterling Marlin seventh, Dave Blaney 14th, John Andretti 16th, rookie Casey Atwood 25th, Buckshot Jones 30th, Kyle Petty 31st and rookie Jason Leffler 36th.
Elliott will carry the load for Dodge today in the Budweiser Shootout, an all-star race of sorts that has been stretched out from 25 laps to 70. Originally only for pole winners from the previous Winston Cup season, today’s field has added former winners.
This brought Elliott into the fold, giving the Dodge camp its first opportunity to test the Intrepid chassis during race conditions. And it also brought back Dale Earnhardt, still the most popular driver along pit road. Earnhardt has won this event six times, but has not driven in it since 1997.
Elliott will drive a new Intrepid in the Shootout, saving the car Evernham brought here for the 500. The chassis for the 500 car ran in last year’s Pepsi 400 at Daytona and the Talladega Winston 500--but as a Ford. A few cosmetic alterations changed it from Ford to Dodge.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The top finishers in Saturday’s qualifying at Daytona International Speedway:
1. (9) x-Bill Elliott, Dodge, 185.565 mph
2. (92) x-Stacy Compton, Dodge, 182.682
3. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 182.622
4. (20) Tony Stewart, Pontiac, 182,534
5. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 182.474
6. (22) Ward Burton, Dodge, 182.419
7. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 182.142
8. (33) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 182.120
9. (31) Mike Skinner, Chevrolet, 182.116
10. (32) Ricky Craven, Ford, 182.076
x-Qualifier for the front row.
THE RACE: Sunday Feb. 18, 9 a.m., Channel 11.
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