Daytona Beach, Fla. — Drivers usually race to win. Today, some will race just to get in.
In the complex qualifying format for the Daytona 500, the Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races are the only chance for some drivers' to make the lineup for NASCAR's biggest event.
"I've pretty much had to do that every year," 1990 Daytona winner Derrike Cope said. "Coming down here, I knew we wouldn't qualify well and that we'd have to race our way in."
Each of the 50-lap races on Daytona's 21/2-mile oval will qualify 14 drivers for Sunday's race, filling positions 3 through 30 in the 43-car field.
Dodge drivers Bill Elliott and Stacy Compton locked up the first two starting spots last Saturday, topping the first of two rounds of time trials. The rest of the 52 drivers entered have a few different avenues available to get into the lineup.
Positions 31 through 36 will be filled by the remaining fastest drivers from time trials, with 37 through 42 reserved for provisional starters based on last year's car owner points.
Last place will go either to a provisional or a former Winston Cup champion who fails to make the race on speed or points.
The pressure Thursday is on the drivers who failed to come up with a fast lap or those from teams that can't make it on points.
Cope fits both categories.
His qualifying lap of 177.271 mph was 48th fastest, and his team, Quest Motor Racing, is brand new a partnership between Cope and NHRA Pro Stock star Warren Johnson with no points to fall back on.
"It's tough," Cope said Wednesday as his crew scrambled to get the No. 37 Ford ready for the only Winston Cup practice of the day. "You can't go out there with any preconceived ideas. You just have to race.
"You just go out there and hang it out. You've got no choice. You have to be in the top 14."
Dale Jarrett, the defending champion here and a three-time winner, is at the opposite end of the racing spectrum this week. His qualifying lap was third fastest, he finished third in the 2000 season points and he is a former series champ.
No problem making Sunday's race, no matter what happens today.
"We know we're in the race," Jarrett said. "We just want to get through 50 laps and make sure we're where we think we are. If we're not, we'll tweak it a little after the race.
"Some of the guys out there, this is their season. Sometimes it gets a little drastic out there because guys are trying everything they can to get in. I just hope people use their heads."
Cope, who will be trying to make it into the 500-miler for the 14th time, will start 21st in the 26-car field for today's opening race.
"Starting in the back, I'm going to have to get off to a good start and find some people to draft with," Cope said. "After about 30 laps, I hope to be in position to get near the front. That's when people start to have problems and start lifting. We'll try to be there to take advantage."
Among the other drivers in a similar situation are Dave Marcis, whose record string of 32 consecutive Daytona 500 starts ended last February; Norm Benning; Carl Long; Jeff Purvis; and rookie Dwayne Leik.
The qualifying races begin a busy four days on the Daytona track, with a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race and the opening round of the 2001 IROC series on Friday; the NAPA Auto Parts 300 Busch Series race on Saturday; and the featured event of Speedweeks on Sunday.