Forget Mike Skinner and Steve Grissom, the front-row starters in today’s Daytona 500.
It’s the second row of defending race-winner Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt, the event’s most famous non-winner, who provoke most of the anticipation for NASCAR’s premier event.
Jarrett, a two-time winner, and Earnhardt, winless in 18 tries, established themselves as favorites by winning 125-mile qualifying races Thursday in dominating fashion.
Starting at or near the front might be particularly important in the Winston Cup season opener, because of off-season rules changes that have made it harder than ever for the competitors to pass.
Jarrett, who twice has outdueled seven-time series champion Earnhardt to win this race, is coming off his best season. He won four races on the way to finishing third in the season points in 1996.
The positive feelings from that showing are still emanating from the second-generation racer, the son of two-time Winston Cup champion Ned Jarrett.
“We were trying something different (in the 125-miler) because of the new rules,” Jarrett said. “But we got close to what we had last year.
“Of course, it helps when you’ve got the engine we have. There’s a lot of horsepower and it makes it hard for anybody to pass me.”
Earnhardt, who at 45 is five years older than Jarrett, always points to this race - the only major NASCAR event he never has won. He has come agonizingly close, with four runner-up finishes, including each of the past two years.
In 1993, and again last season, Jarrett held off a determined Earnhardt with classic blocking maneuvers.
But “The Intimidator” doesn’t want to put too much pressure on himself to win this one race, when he also wants so badly to win a record eighth Winston Cup title.
“This is one race,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a long season. It’s a big race. We put a lot of emphasis on it, and a lot of hard work into it. Still, there’s a lot of races left. I’m getting pumped up on all of them, not just this one.”
Still, as Earnhardt left the press box following his qualifying race victory, he said to the assembled media: “There’s more to come on Sunday.”
Despite the passing problems, though, it probably won’t be a two-car race.
Among the drivers who have to be considered contenders in the $4.3-million race are Jarrett’s teammate, Ernie Irvan, the 1991 Daytona winner, and Skinner, Earnhardt’s new teammate and an unusually precocious rookie with a very good car.
Irvan’s Robert Yates Racing Ford was almost as strong as Jarrett’s in their 125-miler. They were the only drivers to lead the event, and Jarrett had to make a tough inside pass on Irvan with five laps remaining to win it.
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