Sunday, February 10, 2002

Young guns ready for Daytona

Johnson and Harvick take front row spots

The Associated Press

        DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick had the same response Saturday after nailing down the front-row starting positions for the Daytona 500.

        Asked about the two 26-year-olds starting NASCAR's biggest race for the first time from the front of the field Feb.17, Johnson grinned and replied: “Could be one heck of a wreck, couldn't it?”

        A few minutes earlier, Harvick's joking response to the same question was: “I hope it's not a big wreck.”

        Nobody expects either of these precocious youngsters to make that kind of mistake, though, even in the stressful spotlight of Daytona.

        Johnson, expected to be a top contender for Rookie of the Year after racing in just three events last year, and qualifying no better than 15th, got off to a great start by winning the pole position for the season opener.

        Fastest throughout winter testing on Daytona International Speedway's 2 1/2-mile oval, Johnson proved it was no fluke, driving his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet around the high-banked track at 185.831 mph — 2mph faster than his quickest lap in testing.

        That was good enough to relegate Harvick, last year's top rookie, to the outside of the front row for the race. Harvick, driving a Chevrolet from Richard Childress Racing, came up just short of the pole with a 185.770.

        Fifty-three drivers made it onto the track in the first of two rounds of time trials, but only the top two locked in starting spots for the 500-mile race.

        “We felt like we were going to be solid,” Johnson said. “We pretty much showed our hand in testing because we had to see what we could do. But I thought that some other guys had an ace in their back pockets, and we didn't expect Kevin to jump up there.”

        Johnson was the fifth driver to post a speed Saturday, then had to wait and worry for more than two hours while all the rest of the drivers got two laps to try to beat him.

        “I chewed through two packs of gum and pretty much wore out the soles of my shoes waiting for the end of qualifying,” he said.

        Johnson joined former Childress driver Mike Skinner (1997) and Loy Allen Jr. (1994) as the only rookies in NASCAR's modern era to win Daytona poles.

        Harvick was the replacement for seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt, who died in a crash on the last lap of last year's Daytona 500.

        Harvick didn't run his first Winston Cup event until the following week at Rockingham, N.C., but ran away with the rookie title as well as winning the Busch Series championship that he had intended to concentrate on before the death of NASCAR's biggest star pushed him into the spotlight.

        Asked about having two newcomers up front, Harvick said: “I think we're just very fortunate to be part of two of the best teams in Winston Cup racing. Right now, it's just a matter of going as fast as the car will let you. Next Sunday, we'll have to make some moves that could make a difference.”

        “Age isn't a big factor in this,” said Johnson, who is three months older than Harvick. “The big thing is experience and I'm trying to get as much out of it as fast as I can. Kevin's got a little head start on me there.”

        Johnson also beat out Jeff Gordon, who along with Rick Hendrick is co-owner of his No.48 Monte Carlo. Gordon, a two-time Daytona winner and the reigning Winston Cup champion, was third-fastest at 185.491, followed by the Dodge of Robert Pressley, making his first start for Melling Racing.

        “I had a lot to do with picking Jimmie to be part of that team,” Gordon said happily. “Maybe I saw some of myself in Jimmie. I like his style.”

        The Ford teams have complained bitterly of an aerodynamic disadvantage at Daytona and Saturday's results appeared to confirm their fears.

        Dale Jarrett, the fastest Ford driver, was 13th at 183.711, while Robert Yates Racing teammate Ricky Rudd was 15th at 183.658. The next fastest Taurus was Brett Bodine in 21st at 183.382.

        Referring to NASCAR cutting a quarter inch off the rear spoilers of the Fords in an effort to even things up among the manufacturers following January testing, Jarrett said, “Everybody is going to start saying that we're complaining again, but I've found it amazing that everybody started hollering when they cut a quarter-inch off our spoiler, but nobody ever said the first word when they cut a quarter-inch off the Chevrolet spoiler before testing ever started.

        “It looks like they really need it,” he added sarcastically.

        Greg Specht, operations manager for Ford Racing Technology, said he plans to speak with NASCAR officials about the situation.

        “I talked to them before qualifying and had a good conversation. They felt they wanted to wait and see what everybody showed in qualifying because that's when everybody lays their cards on the table. We've done that. The data supports what we've been saying all along, so I would like to see something done in order to give us a better chance of winning the race.”

        Positions three through 30 in the 43-car field will be determined Thursday by the results of the Twin 125-mile qualifying races. The next six spots will go to the remaining fastest cars from the two days of time trials, and the rest of the lineup will be filled by provisional starters.


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