Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Drivers up for just about anything to make Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kenny Wallace really wants to be in Sunday's Daytona 500.
"If I get to the last lap of my 150-mile qualifying race on Thursday with a chance to make the 500, I'll finish the race on my roof if that's what I have to do to get in," Wallace said.
Wallace, in the first of two races, will be one of 22 drivers vying for four starting positions -- two from each event -- Thursday.
Also desperate to get in are Brian Vickers, who changed teams and lost his 15th-place points from last season, 2002 Daytona winner Ward Burton and former series champion Bill Elliott, a two-time Daytona winner.
Kyle Petty, a veteran of 25 Daytona 500s and not among the "go or go home" guys in Thursday's races, said even drivers who have qualified for the big event are susceptible to going wild.
"You'd think you'd focus on the 500," Petty said. "But race car drivers are idiots when they get out there."
Under the unique Daytona qualifying format, 35 of the 43 starters automatically make it into the race based on last year's car owner points.
Sunday's time trials locked in the front row -- pole-sitter David Gilliland and Robert Yates Racing teammate Ricky Rudd.
Two-time Daytona winner Sterling Marlin, Boris Said and Johnny Sauter were the three fastest qualifiers Sunday among those not guaranteed a starting spot, meaning they, too, are in.
For them -- plus the rest of the top 35 and Dale Jarrett, guaranteed a spot as the past champion -- only starting positions are in question.
But all drivers will battle one hurdle Thursday, when gusts up to 30 mph are expected. During practice Wednesday, winds gusted to 25 mph, baffling just about everyone, said Derrike Cope, the 1990 Daytona winner who must race his way in.
Cope, who hasn't made the race since 2004, said he's trying not to let the conditions worry him.
"What I anticipate is a race just like it was last year," he said. "You know what's gonna happen. ... It's going to be one of those wild and wooly ends."
Rookie Paul Menard, who drives for Dale Earnhardt Inc., which already has Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. in the race, said he has a good enough car. It's just going to take some luck to stay out of trouble.
"You've got 150 miles, which is actually a fair amount of time. We can do a pit stop and adjust on it and hopefully make it the best at the end," Menard said. "But it's going to be wild for sure. There's a lot of guys, including us, who have got a lot on the line. And they're going to try to risk it all the last few laps."
Among the non-qualified drivers joining Wallace in the first race are Burton, Elliott, Jeremy Mayfield, Mike Bliss, Stanton Barrett, rookies A.J. Allmendinger and Brandon Whitt and 72-year-old James Hylton, the longest of long shots to make the race.
Hylton is trying to race at Daytona for the first time since 1983 and hoping to make his first Cup race since 1993.
Two-time race winner Michael Waltrip also will have to race in with a backup after NASCAR disqualified the car in which he posted his Sunday speed. NASCAR officials said Wednesday they found an illegal substance in the engine of Waltrip's No. 55 Toyota during two Sunday inspections.
In race No. 2, the non-qualified roster includes Cope, Menard, Mike Skinner, Kevin Lepage, Vickers, Joe Nemechek, Frank Kimmel, Eric McClure, Kirk Shelmerdine, Mike Wallace -- Kenny's brother -- and rookies David Reutimann and Regan Smith.
"If I get to the last lap of my 150-mile qualifying race on Thursday with a chance to make the 500, I'll finish the race on my roof if that's what I have to do to get in."
-- Kenny Wallace