Draft lessons taught again at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The difference between a race car and merely a fast car was evident Thursday in the Gatorade 150 qualifiers at Daytona International Speedway.

An engineering degree would help somebody understand exactly why, just like a mathematician had an edge over everybody trying to figure out NASCAR's qualifying system for the Daytona 500.

Lest one think it's just the media that had trouble grasping who was in and who was out, and what the official lineup order would be, consider that Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't follow the formula, either.

"I don't understand it, it's so damned confusing," Junior said after running second to DEI teammate Michael Waltrip in the first of the two 150-mile qualifying races. "I'm sure the guy who drummed it up knows it all."

What Junior did know, and as it turns out knew all along, was that DEI is still the team to beat when it comes to drafting on restrictor-plate tracks. For their efforts Thursday, Waltrip will start third and Junior fifth in Sunday's race.

While it used to be common knowledge that Junior and Waltrip were dominant at Daytona and Talladega, the last week cast doubts about the program because of downright slow qualifying results and solo practice times.

Junior explained to reporters how the flow of air changes on the track when cars get in a line, and indeed the draft showed which cars were set up to race and which ones need aero work.

Waltrip, too, tried his hand at explaining things by concluding that the restrictor plate size change mandated by NASCAR this season made the DEI cars slower by themselves, but strong as ever in the draft.

It was a strong belief the team held, and it wasn't merely talk coming in hindsight after Thursday's show of force. Listen to what Waltrip said a day earlier.

"Anytime you're on top of your game and there's a rule change, obviously it's going to affect some teams more than others," he said. "I just know the nucleus of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the team that has won three out of the last four Daytona 500's, is still together. So, we'll figure it out. They've been working real hard since Sunday to get us more power and to have a better combination for the race.

"I can't wait to get out there and drive. We were really good in drafting practice during preseason testing and we think that will carry over."

If you don't believe that -- and subscribe to the popular grassy-knoll theory that DEI was sandbagging, which Jeff Gordon came out and said Thursday -- you have to disbelieve Junior, too, when he chuckled at the sandbagging rumor.

"I don't know what the benefit of that would be," Junior said. "If there is one, I'd do it.
The cars have been slow, we've changed some things and I don't know if we're better or not. I think if we went and qualified all over again this car would be slow.

"I swear on the bible we ain't been sandbagging.''

Apparently savvy Daytona fans understand the difference between sheer speed and racing prowess. While few showed up to watch last Sunday's qualifying, where Dale Jarrett powered to the pole ahead of Jimmie Johnson, the stands were crowded on a Thursday afternoon to watch the qualifying races.

And what they witnessed proved they were right to stay away last weekend. Jarrett finished a disappointing 21st out of 29 drivers in the first qualifying race; the man who will start first in the Daytona 500 saw this as an ominous sign.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Jarrett said. "I've been concerned about that. Anytime lately we've brought a fast car here, it hasn't really been the best thing for in the draft. This is a handling race and you have to stay wide open in the gas, so we're gonna have to do some work between now and Sunday."

Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch finished sixth in his qualifier and will start 13th in Sunday's race.

And he learned something that DEI already knew: flat-out power isn't how you win at Daytona.

"You've got to make your car turn," Busch said. "It's really a sacrifice of speed to gain the car's cornering ability. You've got to be able to turn and turn underneath people coming out of the corner exit."

It might all sound simple, setting the car up to race properly, but of course it's not easy at all. Several teams are working hard to solve the DEI riddle, probably none more than Hendrick Motorsports, which has Johnson starting second and Gordon 15th.

With Stewart (fourth) and Junior (fifth) being draft-friendly mates at this race, and another friend in Waltrip starting third, Gordon was a little miffed at how it all played out.

"They've never qualified good," he said. "They've always, you know, been mediocre in practice, and they always go in the race. I'd like to know what it is that they got, because they obviously know how to sandbag well.''

Whatever the secret, the field now knows that some familiar faces will be the ones to beat when the green flag drops this weekend.

Justin Hagey is motorsports editor for ESPN.com.