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Focus Is on Safety in Qualifying Heats

February 15, 2001|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The object of the two Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying heats today at Daytona International Speedway is to fill the first 30 berths in Sunday's Daytona 500, but they might also go a long way toward answering questions that have been perplexing drivers and teams this week.

With new aerodynamic packages for Daytona's restrictor-plate racing, how safe is it going to be with a pack of 15 or 20 or more cars drafting together in a door-handle-to-door-handle pack?

Last Sunday's Budweiser Shootout--which had no wrecks, not even a single yellow caution flag--was an anomaly. No one expects that to happen again today or Sunday.

"If you could see in the wind tunnel what these roof flaps and strips and the spoilers do to the air, you would be amazed," defending 500 winner Dale Jarrett said. "We have disturbed the air greatly and that's what's making the cars move around.

"Whenever you get in a pack of cars, you literally can be holding the steering wheel straight and that's now where you're going. If anything happens it's going to be big because we're all right there together."

Said Mark Martin: "I'm expecting the worst and hopefully I'll get surprised."

Do the Fords, which dominated Speed Weeks last year by winning the pole, Bud Shootout, both Twin 125s and the 500, have a chance under the new regulations?

"There's not a Ford in the field that has a chance to win and that's just the way it is," said Jeff Burton, who finished second to Jarrett last year as Fords swept the first five places. "I'm not complaining or whining, that's just the facts. Nobody is being malicious about it, but when they made these changes for the aero deal last year at Talladega, it just penalized the Fords and that's just the way it is.

"I don't think they did it intentionally, it's just more drag on us than it was compared to the other teams and, because of that, we won't win the Daytona 500 unless it turns into something strange."

Will there be more crowd-pleasing passing under the new regulations?

"Definitely," said Dale Earnhardt, who sharply criticized last year's boring follow-the-leader 500.

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