DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Robert Yates didn't have his heart checked before coming to the Daytona 500, but perhaps he didn't need to. Nearly everyone in racing knows it is big and strong.
Yates owns the Texaco/Havoline team that has put Dale Jarrett on the pole for today's Daytona 500. Certainly other teams have been on the pole at Daytona, but perhaps no other team has been so consistent in the face of adversity.
This is the same team that won the 1989 race with Davey Allison as its driver, and was building toward a championship season 1 1/2 years ago, when Allison was killed in a helicopter accident.
It's the same team that then put Ernie Irvan in its car and picked up where it left off, again chasing the Winston Cup championship last season. It was running neck-and-neck with Dale Earnhardt when Irvin was nearly killed in an accident during the summer while practicing at Michigan International Raceway.
Irvan, who was given only a 10 percent chance of survival immediately after the crash, has made a miraculous recovery, but is still sidelined with double vision.
Lesser things have destroyed other race teams. But the Yates team keeps picking itself up and going on, seemingly getting stronger by the day.
The latest example is Jarrett's sitting on the pole today. While Jarrett has won the 500, until he joined this team this winter, he had never sat on a Winston Cup pole.
"I don't know how we do it," said Yates.
"I guess we just don't want to quit. We want to be a contender and we don't expect anything less. But sometimes we do have to wonder. We keep getting so close [to a championship], and then something awful happens and we get knocked back.
"There has been a lot of grieving, but I've been in racing all my life and I've been really lucky in racing. I've been almost injury free. I've built a lot of engines for a lot of guys and never had anything I've built play a role in any injury. Davey's flip at Pocono before his helicopter crash, Ernie's wreck at Michigan, neither of them came from a careless act. We didn't do anything risky.
"We can live with it. Five minutes ago, Ernie was in here showing me how his eyes are starting to focus together."
Thanks to Yates, this is still Ernie Irvan's team. Jarrett, as the pole-sitter himself says, is just keeping the seat warm.
In a business as competitive as this one, the fact that Irvan is still with the team, taking an active roll in the every-day decisions, working with Jarrett and crew chief Larry McReynolds, is an unmatched demonstration of commitment and loyalty.
Jarrett, who won the 1993 Daytona 500 for the Joe Gibbs race team, is signed to a one-year contract. He knows that no matter what he does, "if I win 15 races and a championship," it will still be Irvan's ride next season.
Yates has made it clear he does not want a two-car team, although he will field two cars at times this season, when Irvan is ready again to climb behind the wheel of a race car.
In the meantime, Irvan is right here, translating Jarrett's feel in the car to McReynolds, and McReynolds' reactions back to Jarrett.
"Ernie is speeding up our communication process," said McReynolds. "He's a driver and understands what Dale is feeling, and he knows what it's like to communicate with me, the phrases and terms I understand. Heck, he's almost like a mediator."
Which might bother some drivers, but not Jarrett.
"It's Ernie's car," said Jarrett. "I think it must be much harder on him not being in the car than it is on me. I'm driving. I'm the one with the chance to win my second Daytona 500 and the Winston Cup championship. And we're working well together."
Jarrett said making the decision to come to the Yates team for a year was not the hard part. The team is recognized as one of the two or three most consistent in the business, and almost any driver would jump to drive for it.
"The difficult part was the decision to leave Joe Gibbs Racing," said Jarrett. "I had had some success there, and I felt a part of the creation process there.
"My brother-in-law was the crew chief. But you have to weigh it all out, and I believe that my best chance for winning a championship in 1995 is with Robert Yates. I think 1996 will take care of itself."
Jarrett shrugged. He has had a funny career, anyway, he reasons.
"I don't know that I've ever gotten credit, one way or the other, for my racing," he said.
When Jarrett drove for Cale Yarborough, when anything good or bad happened, it seemed to be because Yarborough was the owner. When Jarrett was with the Wood brothers, the good came as a result of their know-how.
With Gibbs racing, it was a championship football coach fielding a Daytona 500-winning team. Jarrett just happened to be the driver.
"I've paid a lot of attention to this team when I was driving for others," said Jarrett of the Yates operation. "The tragedy with Davey and the near-tragedy with Ernie just seemed to bond them more.
"Now that I'm here, I see that comes from the top. That comes from Robert and Larry, from how strong they are emotionally and how caring they are about the people around them."
McReynolds won't take much credit for this team's strength, pointing instead to Yates and the crew.
"Robert treats our families better than some team owners treat their own actual employees," said McReynolds. "I think that matters. And I think we've just got a group of guys who are racers, who realize crawling off in a corner and mourning the problems, or whatever, don't fix nothing. It just gets worse.
"Robert gave everyone on this team a part in the decision making about how we handled Davey's death and Ernie's accident and who we chose to replace them. Robert just didn't make decisions. It was everybody who was involved."
There is no doubt that a major source of the team's consistency and strength comes from Yates. The 51-year-old, who is the ninth and youngest child of a prominent Southern Baptist minister in Charlotte, N.C., takes his commitments seriously.
"I had to pull all the stops out of my banking account to do what we're doing right now," Yates said. "I have a responsibility to my sponsors, Texaco and Havoline, to 30 guys on this team, to two drivers -- one of whom agreed to come drive for me for only one year. I couldn't have looked Dale in the eyes if I couldn't have promised to do everything we could to make this a successful year."
Yates has paid Irvan -- who hopes to be ready to return to racing by July -- a full salary since his accident.
Yates also has invested in new equipment for this season and continues to try to work with Ford to make the overall company motor sports program successful.
"I just want to get through this season," said Yates. "I want Dale Jarrett to say, 'I'm glad I did it. I won a championship.' I want that to be his feeling. And then I want Ernie to come back to a team that is still current and competitive."
It's a heavy burden. But Yates' shoulders are broad, and today his race team takes its next step toward lifting the load in the Daytona 500.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
FAVORITES: Sterling Marlin, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip.
OUTLOOK: Chevrolet drivers Marlin and Earnhardt dominated the 125-mile qualifying races, giving the men in Fords a lot to worry about. Jarrett, Mark Martin and Bill Elliott appear to be the strongest Ford drivers. The weather forecast is for rain, which could change the track dramatically. That might or might not help the Fords. Earnhardt's consistency here would probably make him the odds-on favorite except that his consistency (26 victories at the track) has not included the 500 (0-for-16).
No. Driver ... ... ... ... ... ... ... Car
1. Dale Jarrett .. ... ... ... ... ... Ford Thunderbird
2. Dale Earnhardt ... ... .. .. .. ... Chevrolet Monte Carlo
3. Sterling Marlin .. ... ... .. .. .. Chevrolet Monte Carlo
4. Jeff Gordon ... .. ... ... .. .. .. Chevrolet Monte Carlo
5. Darrell Waltrip .. ... ... .. .. .. Chevrolet Monte Carlo
6. Mark Martin ... ... ... ... ... ... Ford Thunderbird
7. Rusty Wallace ... ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
8. Todd Bodine ... ... ... ... ... ... Ford Thunderbird
9. Ken Schrader .. ... ... ... ... ... Chevrolet Monte Carlo
10. Bill Elliott ... ... ... .. .. ... Ford Thunderbird
11. Terry Labonte .. ... ... ... .. .. Chevrolet Monte Carlo
12. Ted Musgrave ... ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
313. Kyle Petty ... ... ... ... ... .. Pontiac Grand Prix
14. Ricky Craven .. ... ... ... ... .. Chevrolet Monte Carlo
15. Michael Waltrip ... ... ... ... .. Pontiac Grand Prix
16. Lake Speed ... ... ... ... ... ... Ford Thunderbird
17. Dick Trickle ... ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
18. Ricky Rudd ... ... ... ... ... ... Ford Thunderbird
19. Dave Marcis .. ... ... ... ... ... Chevrolet Monte Carlo
20. Bobby Labonte ... ... ... .. .. .. Ford Thunderbird
21. Ward Burton ... ... ... ... ... .. Chevrolet Monte Carlo
22. Derrike Cope .. ... ... ... ... .. Ford Thunderbird
23. Joe Nemechek .. ... ... ... ... .. Chevrolet Monte Carlo
24. Randy LaJoie .. ... ... ... ... .. Pontiac Grand Prix
25. Bobby Hamilton ... ... ... ... ... Pontiac Grand Prix
26. Ben Hess ... ... ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
27. Joe Ruttman ... ... ... ... ... .. Ford Thunderbird
28. Jeff Burton ... ... ... ... ... .. Ford Thunderbird
29. Jeremy Mayfield ... ... ... ... .. Ford Thunderbird
30. Morgan Shepherd ... ... ... ... .. Ford Thunderbird
31. Robert Pressley ... ... ... .. ... Chevrolet Monte Carlo
32. Phil Parsons ... ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
33. Davy Jones ... ... ... ... ... ... Ford Thunderbird
34. Jeff Purvis .. ... ... ... ... ... Chevrolet Monte Carlo
35. Steve Grissom ... ... ... .. .. .. Chevrolet Monte Carlo
36. Mike Wallace ... ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
37. Loy Allen Jr. .. ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
38. John Andretti .. ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
39. Brett Bodine ... ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
40. Geoff Bodine ... ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
41. Rick Mast ... ... ... .. ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird
42. Steve Kinser ... ... ... ... .. .. Ford Thunderbird