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Tuesday, February 11, 2003
High anxiety sets in at Daytona

By Mike Massaro
ESPN.com

Mike Massaro If Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout is any indication, Thursday's Gatorade 125s could be very intense.

"As soon as they dropped the green it was like instant three-wide racing. I was like, this is crazy," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came from the last starting position (19th) to win.

Part of the craziness may be attributed to the common template that has debuted this week. While the cars are still not completely identical, the only distinguishing characteristics between makes are their noses and tailpieces. The apparent result is reflected by the style of racing displayed Saturday night.

"They looked pretty even to me," Terry Labonte said. "We'll wait and see here Thursday for the qualifying races for the 500 but the cars all look pretty even."

However, after Monday's qualifying session, some might argue that Labonte and the rest of the Bowtie Brigade have an aero advantage with their new Monte Carlo. Chevy posted six of the top-eight speeds. Ford teams placed only two cars in the top-10, while the Pontiac of Ricky Craven was the fastest Grand Prix at 15th.

Thursday will be the true test of how equal things are -- and there will be a lot on the line. The Gatorade 125s will establish positions 3-30 for the 45th running of the Daytona 500. The top 14 finishers in each of the two 50-lap races, excluding pole winner Jeff Green and second-place qualifier Earnhardt Jr., who have already secured spots.

Positions 31 through 36 will be determined based on the fastest speeds of those who did not qualify through the 125s. The remaining seven provisional positions will be awarded based on 2002 owners points with the final spot (43rd) being reserved for a past Winston Cup champion, if necessary.

But for most drivers the only way to guarantee a spot in the Great American Race is to take care of business Thursday.

"You go into the twins knowing that you have to finish in the top-15 and you just drive the car to the best of your ability," Kenny Wallace said. "You don't wait for anybody and you go right away and hopefully you won't hit anybody along the way."

Wallace is one driver who might be on the bubble. His car owner, Bill Davis, ranks 32nd in owner's points and he was 27th in speed. But he's not alone. Jimmy Spencer, Todd Bodine, Mike Wallace, Christian Fittipaldi, Ken Schrader, David Green and 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope are just some of the notable driver's in the red zone.

With so much at stake, these races can get crazy, which inevitably raises the level of trepidation.

"There's a certain amount of anxiety that goes along with tearing up a really good car, especially when you don't have one to back that up and we don't this year," said Mark Martin, who will start sixth in the second Gatorade 125. "Last year we just had two cars that were not special. And I think the year before was much like that. But this year we have a car that is very special. I would be devastated to tear that thing up."

Jeff Gordon agrees and says the only way to protect against losing his best car is to be somewhat conservative.

"That's the biggest thing about the 125s, is playing it smart. You don't take chances that are going to mess the race car up," said Gordon, who has won his 125 qualifier twice. "That's always in the back of your mind and I think that's why the 125s are usually caution free races until you get guys who are desperate that have to get to that one position to make the race."

A practice crash Tuesday involving Jeff Burton, Elliott Sadler, Mike Skinner and Jack Sprague has relegated many of those teams to back-up cars for Thursday. And for those teams, the Gatorade 125s will be a crucial tune-up.

"You approach that race understanding that you are going to learn for the Daytona 500," Burton said before Tuesday's incident. "Obviously, that race gives you a starting spot but it's more important that you learn what to do to the car and what you need to make your car better. What it can do and what it can't do so that you can try to fix it."

At the end of the day, some dreams will be made and others will be broken. And it's then that the calm before the storm will set in.

"I know it sounds crazy, but for some reason on Thursday evening when everything's over. The field is set for the Daytona 500. I don't know if the seagulls know it or not but they all come flying in and they start chirping," Wallace said. "Everybody is calm and quiet, it's like everybody is so relieved. That finally the field is set for the Daytona 500. It's a huge relief."

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.