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First 500 test easy for pair

Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick will debut up front in NASCAR's biggest race.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

DAYTONA BEACH -- The charge for a front-row starting position in the 2002 Daytona 500 began, of all places, on a couch reserved for ambitious young drivers who needed a place to sleep.

And dream.

Newcomers to stock car racing's biggest event, 26-year-old Californians Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, each of whom spent time sleeping on the couch of a mutual friend as they tried to break into NASCAR, will lead the field in the 44th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 17.

Johnson, a series rookie, won the pole Saturday in the No. 48 Chevrolet by lapping the 2.5-mile tri-oval at Daytona International Speedway in 48.431 seconds, 185.831 mph.

Harvick, who replaced Dale Earnhardt one week after the seven-time Winston Cup champion was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, was 16-thousands of a second behind in the No. 29 Chevrolet.

This will be the first time the front row will be comprised of drivers making their first Daytona 500 starts since the inaugural race in 1959.

"Could be one heck of a wreck, couldn't it?" said Johnson, who joined Loy Allen Jr. (1994) and Mike Skinner (1997) as the only modern-era rookies to win the 500 pole. "This is neat."

Johnson and Harvick led a steady stream of Chevrolet drivers to the top of the speed sheet, which set the field for Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races. There were six Monte Carlos among the top 10, 12 in the top 20.

Robert Yates Racing teammates Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd had the only Fords in the top 20, 13th and 15th, respectively, fueling the outcry from Ford teams that NASCAR needs to correct an aerodynamic disparity between manufacturers.

"I don't think NASCAR deserves too big a pat on the back for evening up the competition for the Daytona 500," Rudd said. "It looks pretty lopsided to me."

Three Dodges were among the top nine, led by Robert Pressley in fourth. Bobby Labonte was the first Pontiac, in 12th.

Johnson and Harvick have come a long way fast since getting their breaks in big-time NASCAR racing: offers to sleep on the couch at driver Ron Hornaday's home in Charlotte, N.C. Johnson was there for several months in 1997, Harvick for six in 1998.

"I called it Camp Hornaday," Johnson said. "Ron helped a lot of drivers out and had a variety of them sleeping on his couch. Now, here's two of them starting on the front row of the Daytona 500."

Harvick said he grew up rooting for Hornaday, also a California native, at small tracks on the West Coast. Hornaday won NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series titles in 1996 and '98 driving for Earnhardt.

"Those are West Coast connections," Harvick said. "Ron Hornaday took both of us under his wing."

After competing in Busch Grand National, Johnson and Harvick landed jobs with two of Winston Cup's most successful teams: Johnson with Hendrick Motorsports, which has produced five of the past seven Winston Cup champions between Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, and Harvick with Earnhardt's former team at Richard Childress Racing.

Those owners have seven cars combined. Six were among Friday's 10 fastest times.

"I've been pinching myself ever since I signed on with Hendrick Motorsports in September of 2000," Johnson said. "I've got welts all over. The resources speak for themselves."

Harvick, the series rookie of the year in 2001, was teased by crew members that his rookie season will not truly be over until he runs his first Daytona 500.

That also includes Thursday's Twin 125s, in which positions 3-30 will be set for the 500. The rest of the field will be filled by the six next-best qualifying speeds and seven provisionals. It's a complicated procedure, even to Harvick. "I'm still not sure how all this works, but from what I understand we're on the front row of the Daytona 500 no matter what happens in the 125s," Harvick said. "That means I don't have to worry about anything for a whole week."

Least of all finding a place to sleep.

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