Yates feeling better with two fast cars at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Robert Yates thought he was going to die.

The owner of Robert Yates Racing was so stressed over the struggles of his Nextel Cup organization last season that instead of going to the track, he went to the hospital and ask to be checked in.

He was so upset over losing his two drivers -- Dale Jarrett to Michael Waltrip Racing and Elliott Sadler to Evernham Motorsports -- and longtime sponsor UPS that he took "green" pills to help with bodily functions that shut down.

"I was physically a mess," Yates said. "Everything was making me sick. I didn't want to be here. I felt like I didn't deserve to be here anymore.

"Really, that's just how much this business works on you. I hated it. It made my body not function right."

Yates, 63, was been far from death's bed this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.

He felt like he belonged.

Ricky Rudd, who returned from a year's hiatus to replace Jarrett, was fastest in both practices for qualifying for the Daytona 500. Rookie David Gilliland, who replaced Sadler, was second fastest in the first session and third in the second.

Things went even better on Sunday. Gilliland won the pole for the 500, with Rudd qualifying second to make it an all-Robert Yates Racing front row for the 49th running of the race.

There was a noticeable bounce in Yates' step as he prepared for what he hopes will be his final season as an active participant in the organization before handing it over to his son, Doug.

"There were times last year I didn't want to see a racetrack," he said. "I was miserable. I could handle a lot of this. You never want to quit something when you're having fun.

"Right now I'm having fun. I just had recent [medical] tests and I've got some warnings and things I have to do, but they see no reason why I can't stay at work and be physically involved with it, mentally involved."

Nothing about last season was fun for Yates. Beyond losing drivers and sponsors and struggling to find replacements, he went winless for the first time since opening the shop in 1989.

He had only two top-5s and nine top-10s, and finished outside the top 20 in points with both cars.

Things were so bad that Yates took off the weekend of the Oct. 1 race at Kansas and drove his motorcycle into the Great Smokey Mountains to forget about racing.

Unfortunately, wherever he stopped for gas or to eat, there was a radio or television with the race on. The radio was so loud at one restaurant that Yates thought, "Man, how can I get of here? Where can we get something to eat where we don't have to [hear the race]?"

He then drove 10 hours home, arriving just after dark to be told that Jarrett finished fourth. It felt like a victory.

"I was like, 'Damn, they don't need me at all,' " Yates said.

But Yates realized he was needed and that the team needed him. He became more involved at the shop than ever. He convinced Mars Incorporated to sponsor a second car and Rudd to come out of retirement.

"When you own a company, the last person to jump off the ship is the captain, right?" Yates said. "When you feel everybody is abandoning you and you want to jump off and you can't because you're an owner, that's a tough position to be in.

"I was amazed that I didn't lose every quality person that I had because they had opportunities. If every good, talented person I had wanted to go somewhere else, it's like the rats, when they're all gone the captain better go too because it's not going to make it."

The good ship RYR didn't sink and Yates doesn't expect it to anytime soon. He knows his engine program is one of the best in NASCAR, which makes his cars a threat at Daytona, where horsepower is king.

If he can catch up in other areas, such as engineering, and get the intermediate track programs back on track, he sees no reason RYR can't challenge for another title like the one Jarrett won in 1999.

For the first time in a year, he feels prepared.

"It was the same as I was stressed when I was in school because I didn't do my homework," Yates said as he reflected on last season. "I knew I was going to flunk, but I didn't work.

"When you're making good grades and prepared for the exam, you're not having to cram in the middle of the night and taking pills to stay up all night, your life functions a lot better. That's really what I've been trying to do."

Yates doesn't know where this season is headed, but he knows winning the pole and the Daytona 500 would help lessen the possibility of stress the remainder of the season.

"If you win the Daytona 500, you can brag all year long," he said. "You can run anywhere after the Daytona 500. If you win this thing, you won the Super Bowl. What the heck?

"If you see me going around holding my stomach, then we're not running [good] and you can probably figure out where I'm headed. Back to get the green pills."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.