DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Daytona 500 pole-sitter Dale Jarrett stands on the back step to his hauler, his sunglasses in place and his position, perhaps more fitting than his fellow competitors might like to admit, is head and shoulders above those gathered around him.
"If we're the favorite, two other guys are very close," said Jarrett, as he gave his opinion of what will happen today in the 42nd annual race. "Ricky [Rudd] and Bill Elliott have just as good a shot as us."
It is a troubling observation for many teams lining up for today's 12: 15 start.
Rudd is Jarrett's teammate, giving the Robert Yates' owned team a great one-two punch on the front row, while Elliott has been a pleasant surprise and is starting third. They are all Ford drivers and appear to be among the few teams who have figured out the new shock absorber and spring rules that NASCAR has created for the four super speedway races here and at Talladega, Ala.
The rules were created for several reasons. NASCAR wanted to raise the back end of the cars to give the drivers a smoother ride and protect the racetrack surfaces during qualifying. Crew chiefs had a tendency to lower the cars to the point that they would bottom out in an effort to gain speed, breaking up the racing asphalt and concrete tracks and also jarring the drivers so much their teeth rattled -- literally.
NASCAR's operating officer also said the change was made to save teams money. Owners had been complaining about the expense of having an expert shock designer build a car for qualifying at the super tracks. Now, NASCAR hands out the shocks and springs here, just as it hands out the restrictor plates that limit the air to the motor, thereby limiting the speed the cars can reach.
It was thought the shock and spring package also would help make the cars run slower. What wasn't anticipated was that it would additionally make the cars harder to drive. Both Ford and Chevrolet have new car designs this season, and the shock and spring package makes the cars' front ends lose their grip on the racetrack. The Pontiacs are not new, but they, too, are struggling. Having no grip, drivers are finding it difficult to turn through the corners.
"All the cars are pushing," said Jeff Gordon, a Chevrolet driver, explaining that all the cars want to angle toward the wall. "In that respect, the cars are all the same. Except, I don't really know how much push the Fords have. And the key to winning at Daytona is the handling. You have to be able to keep your foot down all the way around the racetrack."
And in both of the Twin 125 Mile Qualifying races Thursday, few in any model car could do that.
Some Fords, like Jarrett's, Rudd's and Elliott's, obviously, have fewer problems than others. But all the Ford drivers have the advantage in car design.
The Fords' noses are lower than the Chevys' and closer to the track surface. The low nose creates more down force, because less air gets under the car. And the slope of the nose decreases the amount of resistance (or drag) it has to the wind and allows the air to flow more smoothly over the top of the car.
Meanwhile, the front-end design of the new Chevrolet does not allow as much air to the radiator. Mechanics have been putting tape across the Chevys' noses in hopes of increasing the amount of air flow over the cars to reduce the drag and increase the down force. The problem with that is, the radiators are receiving so little air to begin with, they tend to overheat.
And that's why the Chevy drivers are complaining that they can't help themselves.
As for the Pontiacs, their noses are more like those on the Fords, but they have a larger spoiler (metal lip at the end of the trunk lid) on the back. The spoiler gives them more down force, but it also creates more drag. So they are using tape on their cars' noses, too.
For those watching on television, the small in-car cameras may catch the Chevys and Pontiacs that are running close on another car's back bumper dropping down two or three times along the backstretch. They may look as if they're about to make a pass. In reality, much of the time, the drivers will simply be looking to give their cars' motor a breath of cool air and get right back in line.
Though Jarrett does not expect anyone, including Rudd or Elliott, to be able to pass another car today without help from someone else, he is not very sympathetic to his competitors' complaints.
Jarrett believes both the Chevys and the Pontiacs will have made improvements to their cars by today, but even if they haven't, the defending Winston Cup champion is sick of the bellyaching.
"They built their race cars, not us," said Jarrett. "No one made them come up with that design, and as far as the shocks and springs, we all knew what the package was when we went testing. The problem is that when most teams go testing, it is all about speed.
"But some people worked hard and worked it out. Everybody had the same opportunity to work on the shocks. But most of 'em were looking for speed and it was 'Oh, wow!' But the people who did hit on it, good for them."
Chevy driver Terry Labonte smirked: "If I had a car that was aerodynamically better, I'd be saying that, too. But imagine what he'd be saying if he had a car like ours."
The 500 could be a sleeping pill like the Twin 125s were. But it would be a surprise. Drivers have complained here often in years past and yet, somehow, the race usually turns out to be all right.
That thought isn't far from Jarrett's mind. "I have a great car and I think if I'm going to win the 500, I have to beat Ricky and Bill," Jarrett said. "But I also think those other guys are like wounded bear or lion. They're more dangerous when they're hurting. They struggled with their handling Thursday, but like everyone else, they've been working hard. The 500 is a very long race, and a lot of different circumstances can present themselves."