Dale Jarrett, driver of the No. 88 UPS Taurus, is a three-time winner of the Daytona 500 while Matt Kenseth is coming off a season in which he won a season-high five races. Both drivers spoke about the importance of the Daytona 500 and how they view the race for the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup title.
WHAT ABOUT THE FEELING OF WINNING THE DAYTONA 500? "Somebody told a couple of weeks ago that some of these guys coming in understand that the 500 is special but it wasn't that special. I told them that they were obviously talking to people that have never won this race before because once they do have that opportunity, and for those of us that have, you realize just how big of race this really is. Everything that it does for your career. The opportunity to really see a side of racing that you don't get to see, which is the good things NASCAR has done over the years to afford us the opportunities to go be on TV shows and, basically, get interviewed by the world. It's not just a U.S. thing. When you win the Daytona 500, you get interviewed by people all over the world and that's pretty cool. It is special and the feeling that you get is a feeling of accomplishment. A lot of people who cover this race always ask, why do you run your biggest race at the beginning of the year when everybody else waits until the end. Well, this is when we have the most time to get prepared for any race so it's for our biggest race. We bring our best equipment. None of the drivers are hurt coming into this, so everybody feels good. The crews are ready to go, so this is the most prepared that we'll be, so when you go out and win you realize that you've beaten the best at their very best. I think that feeling of accomplishment and knowing that there are drivers that have done a lot of things in this sport, but never got the opportunity to visit this Victory Lane. When you do, you realize just how big of a race this is."
THERE DOESN'T APPEAR TO BE A CLEAR FAVORITE THIS YEAR. "I think you have to look at a lot of things. You've got a lot of people that have the opportunity to win this Daytona 500, but you probably have 15-20 teams at least that really have a chance at winning the championship and battling for it right down to the wire. The competition level is just incredible. The amount of money that's in the sport is incredible and when you get that amount of money spread out among all these teams, then that gives a lot of people the opportunity to come in and do well right from the start and that's what we're seeing. It's gonna be a fun and interesting season. We're gonna have to get into probably 30 weeks at least before we're gonna be able to see how everything is gonna play out."
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO WALK IN HERE AND SEE YOU'RE ONE OF THE OLDER GUYS? "There's no doubt that I'm one of the older guys, but that doesn't bother me. That just means I have more experience. There are a lot of things these young guys are gonna encounter this week, maybe for the first time in their career, and there's not much that could happen this week that I haven't been through and seen, so I think I'm better prepared to handle a lot of this stuff and be ready to do what we're here to do, and that's to get down to racing and realizing what it's gonna take for our race team to end up in Victory Lane."
DO YOU THINK SOMEONE LIKE TONY STEWART COULD DOMINATE THIS YEAR? "No, I think those days are gone with people dominating this sport they way they used to. There are too many things that have changed. The rules have changed and with the bodies so similar, I think it would be very difficult because of the templates, downforce and the tires now. I think that makes it more difficult for anybody to win the 10 races that we saw Jeff (Gordon) do in the past. As we go into this, we don't view anybody as being dominating. I think there are certain guys that you realize you're gonna have to battle with if you're gonna try to win the championship and Tony would be one of those, but I don't see anybody dominating this. I think it's gonna be very up and down and what has happened because of the competition being so keen, is that you take chances with pit strategy and strategies you might employ on the race track. Sometimes that's gonna work for you and sometimes it's gonna backfire, so you have to fight through those times. Hopefully, you have more of those where your strategy is correct."
WHERE CAN YOU GAIN AN EDGE? "There's not much you can do to the aero package anymore. They have so many templates on these cars now that there's no way to really gain an advantage there. From manufacturer to manufacturer, and even within the Ford camp, they're all pretty much the same. There's not much there. Obviously, the engine is still something you can work around within the rules and still be able to get a little bit of an edge there, but handling is still the key everywhere that we go. You have to work hard in that area. The guys that are testing and using their engineers well are gonna be the ones that really make a big difference. Your pit crew is more important now than its ever been. We've said this for a lot of years, but that's why we have them training and practicing more than ever before because we realize how important they are. They literally can win you races now. We know that in the past it has happened some, but it will happen even more this coming year."
"Everybody's dream is to win the Daytona 500. I don't get too hyped up about this week. I don't put a lot of extra pressure into this week and I don't get it so built up that when I leave here and we don't win the Daytona 500 or we crash in the Daytona 500, you can't put your whole season into a week-and-a-half. There are still 35 more races and each race pays the same amount of points. We put a lot of effort into this race, but I don't try to get it so built up that I'm let down when I leave."
THE CHAMPIONSHIP IS YOUR GOAL? "That's the big goal overall, but, really, my goal for the year is to be as competitive as we were last year - to be in position to win as many times as we were last year and to have good cars that we can race up front. If we do that and we do a better job at the rest of the little things, hopefully, we'll be a championship contender by the end of the year."
DO YOU FEEL PRESSURE TO LIVE UP TO LAST YEAR'S RESULTS? "You always feel the pressure. You always want to win races and always want to run good. I don't know if there was more pressure from running good last year to repeat it, or if there was more pressure last year to do well because of how bad we did in 2001. So, no matter how you do there's always pressure to perform. You always want to be competitive and be on top of your game and you always want to win. That's why I got into racing. You always want to win no matter what you're doing."
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE RULES CHANGES? "I think it's bad to be tweaking the cars a whole bunch in the middle of the year. I've tried not to get into the politics at all. I feel like whatever they give us for rules, that's it. If we have this set of rules and we're a Ford, we need to go to work and make our cars as best as we can with the rules we're given. I wasn't really in favor of when they gave Chevy and inch right in the middle of the year for no reason. They were winning races and were second or third in the points and they just gave it to them. I'm not a big proponent for that kind of stuff. I think if you've got everybody pretty even and everybody is winning races, then I think you should leave it alone and let everybody work on their car. I will say that NASCAR does do a good job of making sure the competition is close and making sure all the makes have a chance to win the championship and making sure all the makes have a chance to win every Sunday. In that sense, that's the right thing to do. You shouldn't be penalized because you drive a Ford and you shouldn't necessarily have an advantage because you drive a Ford. If you're an independent team, you should be able to build any car and know it's gonna be competitive."
WILL THE FUEL CELL EVEN THE PLAYING FIELD? "I don't think the fuel cell matters as far as performance. It's gonna make you pit more and maybe keep the cars bunched up a little more. At first I think they thought it was gonna separate things, but I think it's gonna keep everyone bunched up more than what it did before because you're gonna get everybody coming in and out of the pits. I don't think it's necessarily gonna change the outcome of the race."
IF YOU COULD WIN THE MOST RACES THIS SEASON OR WIN THE DAYTONA 500, WHICH WOULD YOU CHOOSE? "I would rather win more races in a season than anybody, by far. I would love to win the Daytona 500, but if I had a choice to win the Daytona 500 or the World 600 at Charlotte, I'd rather win the World 600. The Daytona 500 is a great race to win. It would be cool to have the trophy and say, 'Man, we won the Daytona 500.' But a restrictor plate race is just so much different than the rest of the races. It has so much to do with the team and the car and the body. The engine is pretty much all we have left to work on and while the driver has something to do with it, it's not as much as he would at Charlotte or Atlanta or some place like that. I'd much rather win the most races than just win the Daytona 500 and not win again."