DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Car owner Robert Yates couldn't stop laughing as he said it.
"I thought the most exciting race of the season was here last February," Yates said, recalling the Daytona 500. "I thought it was very exciting."
Yates knows, as do many others, that the Daytona 500 was criticized as "the most boring" 500 in history. It was argued that restrictor plates limiting the cars' horsepower were detrimental to the sport.
But Yates wasn't one of those doing the criticizing. His two Fords, with Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd at the wheels, started on the front row, and Jarrett came home the winner.
"I'd like to make it just as exciting this time," Yates said, late yesterday afternoon.
And then his two teams set out to make it so.
Jarrett and Rudd put their race cars on the front row for tomorrow night's Pepsi 400. One, two, respectively. Just as they did in February.
Rudd took his qualifying run two cars ahead of Jarrett, and for just that long held the pole with a run of 187.122 mph. But then came Jarrett.
"We knew that Dale was gonna be the guy to beat tonight," said Rudd. "We were fastest in practice, but they didn't get real serious, I don't think, until it was time to go."
Jarrett won the Daytona 500 in a great car. But that car was taken away after the victory lane celebration and put on exhibit in the Daytona USA museum. It was worrisome at the time, but not so you'd notice last night.
He was the only driver to circle the 2.5 mile tri-oval in less than 48 seconds, taking 47.988 seconds to complete the loop in 187.547 mph.
Despite its superiority last night, it was the second slowest restrictor-plate pole speed since the advent of the plate in 1988.
"To lose a wonderful car to the museum at the start of the year could be devastating to a lot of teams," Jarrett said. "But, and I'm not saying you can clone them, but we've found a way to reproduce them. This is the easiest driving car I've ever had. If a car can be better than the one we gave up in February, this is it."
Jarrett now sits in the catbird seat, perfectly positioned to pursue a little history. In 42 years here only one driver, Cale Yarborough, has won three straight races at this speedway. Yarborough, a three- time Winston Cup champion, won the Firecracker 400 in 1967, then both the Daytona 500 and the Firecracker 400 in 1968.
"It's more a matter of the equipment than me, that I'm in this position," Jarrett said. "But as for Cale Yarborough, he was one of those who gave me my first break in Winston Cup racing and considering all that he accomplished, it's an honor to have the opportunity.
"I do love this race track. But I'm just doing my job."
And, in Jarrett's mind, there is a more compelling reason to try to win tomorrow: Winston Cup points.
Jarrett is the defending series' champion and currently third in the points race, behind Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt.
Labonte, who qualified 21st last night, is trying to win his first title, while Earnhardt, who will start 18th, is trying for his eighth, which would break the tie he is currently in with Richard Petty.
"The way those two guys race, you can't fail to capitalize when you have a chance to gain points," Jarrett said. "And we know that we have an opportunity to win here."