YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Getting the green light

After a week of controversy off the track, many drivers with quick cars have a chance to shine in the season opener for Nextel Cup

February 18, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Run silent, run fast.

Several Nextel Cup drivers will start today's Daytona 500 atop a wave of hype or under a cloud of controversy, but there's another group lurking quietly beyond the headlines with fast stock cars that could find Victory Lane.

It includes Kurt Busch and his brother Kyle, former 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Stremme, Jeff Burton and Jimmie Johnson, the defending 500 winner and reigning Cup champion.

All were quick in the week of preliminary racing here that led to today's 500, the season opener and the Super Bowl of NASCAR's Cup series.

Yet, they've been largely silenced by the noise surrounding Tony Stewart, newcomer David Gilliland, the arrival of Toyota and the drivers in a cheating scandal that has marred "the Great American Race" for the second consecutive year.

"We've been the class of the field, I feel like," said Kyle Busch, who drives the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports and starts eighth today.

But Stewart, Gilliland, three-time 500 winner Jeff Gordon and heralded 500 rookie Juan Pablo Montoya will draw much of the attention when the 43-car field takes the green flag in a late-afternoon start on the famed high banks of Daytona's 2.5-mile oval.

Stewart has won the series title twice, in 2002 and 2005, and 29 Cup races. But he has never won the 500 -- a hole in his career he's eager to fill.

"There are no guarantees," said Stewart, driver of the No. 20 Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing. But he added: "I feel good about it. I really want this race."

And he's a favorite to collect the $1.44-million winner's prize after winning two of the three preliminary races: The 70-lap Budweiser Shootout sprint last weekend and one of the two 150-mile qualifying heats Thursday.

Gordon won the other heat, but officials ruled that his car was too low in a post-race inspection. The culprit was a faulty part, and Gordon was cleared of any foul play, but he has to start 42nd in today's 200-lap race.

No driver has won the Daytona 500 from that far back, but if Gordon pulls it off, he will tie the late Dale Earnhardt with 76 Cup victories. Richard Petty, with 200, is the leader.

Stewart starts third today, behind pole-sitter Gilliland and veteran Ricky Rudd, 50, Gilliland's teammate at Robert Yates Racing who returned from a one-year layoff.

Gilliland, 30, became NASCAR's Cinderella story a week ago when he qualified his No. 38 Ford Fusion ahead of 61 cars only a month after the short-track racer from Riverside first set foot on Daytona's grounds.

Gilliland and Rudd are only two of several new wrinkles at Daytona, where cool temperatures, partly cloudy skies and a brisk wind are forecast for today's race.

Among the others:

* Montoya, the former Formula One driver and Indianapolis 500 winner, makes his highly anticipated debut in the Daytona 500 today after leaving open-wheel racing last year.

The native of Colombia showed strength in his qualifying heat by leading for nearly 20 laps in his No. 42 Dodge, owned by the team of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. But then a broken wheel sent him to the garage, so he'll start 36th.

* Toyota will finally make its first Cup start, becoming the first foreign automaker to enter the series in four decades.

Four drivers are racing the Toyota Camry: Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, three-time 500 winner Dale Jarrett, David Reutimann and David Blaney.

* But Toyota's arrival was tarnished by the cheating scandal that still hangs over the race.

NASCAR first ruled that the Roush Fenway Racing Ford of Matt Kenseth, and the Evernham Motorsports Dodges driven by Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs, all had ineligible changes to their bodies to improve their aerodynamics. The next day, it said Waltrip's team doctored the fuel system on his No. 55 Toyota Camry.

A total of six crew members from the three teams were suspended, and NASCAR issued fines totaling $250,000. And, in an unprecedented move, NASCAR deducted championship points from the drivers before the season had started: 100 from Waltrip, 50 each from Kenseth and Kahne and 25 each from Sadler and Riggs.

Last year's scandal involved Johnson, whose crew chief Chad Knaus was suspended after NASCAR found that the rear window of Johnson's Hendrick Chevrolet had been illegally altered for aerodynamic gain. Johnson, his car restored to meet specifications, then won the 500 and went on to the season championship.

He has drawn little attention this year and he starts 21st today. But Johnson, with 23 Cup wins, is a patient driver who doesn't need to lead early.

And the starting spot here means little, compared with most tracks. Daytona is one of two superspeedways where NASCAR mandates carburetor restrictor plates, which cap the cars' horsepower to keep speeds at safe levels.

The restrictors also keep the cars in tight packs, and drivers move back and forth through the field as they draft with one another. The pack racing also often spawns multi-car crashes.

But to lead the field, "You need to team with someone to get to the front and put yourself in a position to win at the end," Stremme said.

Johnson said the favorites today would include Stewart, Gordon, the Busch brothers, Earnhardt, Gilliland and Kenseth.

Earnhardt, winner of the 2004 Daytona 500, also was fast all week -- and finished second to Stewart in his qualifying heat -- while enjoying a respite from his own controversy.

With reporters following the cheating scandal, there were few questions about whether he would mend fences with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, and re-sign with her Dale Earnhardt Inc. team after this year.

But Earnhardt was asked last week what it would take to pass Stewart today, and he replied: "It might take the Yates rocket," meaning Gilliland.

"That 38 car looks really, really good," Earnhardt said. "If either one of those guys [Stewart or Gilliland] gets in the lead, it's going to be real, real tough to pass them."


Los Angeles Times Articles