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Speed Weeks '04 at Daytona

Biffle is on front line

Second-year Cup driver gives owner Jack Roush his first pole at Daytona.

By BRANT JAMES
Published February 9, 2004

Off to the races:

Check out the blog by Times sportswriter Brant James as he reports from Speed Weeks in Daytona Beach.

DAYTONA BEACH - Jack Roush better be careful. If these Fords keep running like this, NASCAR might have to institute a rule change.

Greg Biffle covered the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway tri-oval in 47.774 seconds at an average speed of 188.387 mph Sunday, winning the pole for the Daytona 500. It was the first for Biffle, and his team owner's first at Daytona.

"The more you talk about leading the field to green in the Daytona 500, it's kind of coming to be real," said Biffle, a second-year Nextel Cup driver who won the 2003 Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Nine have won from the pole in 45 Daytona 500s, most recently Dale Jarrett in 2000.

Robert Yates Racing's Elliott Sadler qualified second at 188.355, providing early payoff for the engine-building partnership between former "sibling rivals" Roush and Yates. Jarrett, Sadler's teammate, won the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night.

Head winds in excess of 20 mph on the backstretch slowed times on Sunday, but Fords equipped with new noses and tails fared better than Chevrolets and Dodges. Ford had four of the top five, with Ricky Rudd fourth and Jarrett fifth. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third in his No.8 Chevrolet.

It may be too good, too soon for Roush, who has never hesitated to vocalize what he considers unfair rule changes by NASCAR. In 2002, Roush driver Mark Martin led the standings late in the season before NASCAR allowed General Motors an aerodynamic adjustment that likely helped Tony Stewart pass him for the title.

Roush long had lobbied for NASCAR to approve new parts for an engine program that had used the same basic model since 1992. The Ford teams have not received newly improved cylinder heads that Roush says could provide up to 15 horsepower more.

Roush semijoked a few weeks ago that he had been assured by NASCAR vice president of communications Jim Hunter that there would be no midseason rule changes and that he would "hold him to it."

"We expect other manufacturers will make their best appeal, as I would or as Ford would," Roush said. "(But) this new Taurus is the first relief we've had in templates that has let us improve ourselves since '97.

"In the meantime, there has been a couple of Chevrolets and a new Pontiac, and the Dodge has been revised twice. Every year the Fords got a new set of templates that made it slower. We'll do better, but I expect criticism."

For now, the combination of Yates horsepower and Roush fuel economy is working very well. As is the relationship between owners who used to vie for Ford's attention and resources.

"It used to be from the beginning of the season until (the end) that Robert and I would not make eye contact, wouldn't shake hands, certainly wouldn't wish each other good luck," Roush said.

Luck was again nowhere to be found for Ryan Newman at a restrictor-plate track. A winner of a Cup-best 11 poles last season, he had the 42nd-best time (48.898) of 45 who attempted to qualify.

"We knew we weren't going to be super fast," he said, "but we didn't think we were going to be that slow."

Though Biffle and Sadler are guaranteed to start 1-2 Sunday, they will join the rest of the field in Thursday's twin 125-mile qualifying races.

"The front row is important to the guys," said Kevin Harvick, who started second last season. "It's more of an ego factor sitting on the front row. It's so early in the week, it really gets a lot of momentum built up for the weekend leading up the 500."

As if Ford needs more right now.

[Last modified February 9, 2004, 01:05:23]


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