Daytona Twin 125s: The fight to make the 500 field

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Jan. 28, 2002) -- They're two things you want to watch during the Gatorade 125's -- who's leading the race and who's in the coveted transfer spot. Guests at last year's installment of the Gatorade 125's witnessed Sterling...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., (Jan. 28, 2002) -- They're two things you want to watch during the Gatorade 125's -- who's leading the race and who's in the coveted transfer spot.

Guests at last year's installment of the Gatorade 125's witnessed Sterling Marlin put Dodge in Victory Lane in the first Gatorade 125 and Mike Skinner edge Dale Earnhardt Jr. by inches in the second Gatorade 125.

While it was a thrill to see Dodge's first victory after a 16-year absence from the Winston Cup Series and to see Skinner slip past Earnhardt Jr. by a race-record .004 seconds, fans also saw some furious competition around the 14th position in each race as drivers feverishly tried to qualify for the Daytona 500.

Daytona 500 qualifying is done in a unique format. Following Bud Pole Day on Feb. 9, drivers who qualified in odd-numbered positions -- first, third, fifth, etc. -- compete in the first Gatorade 125. Drivers who qualified in even-numbered positions battle in the second.

Only the pole winner and outside pole from Bud Pole Day are locked into the starting grid while everybody else is locking horns for a starting position in the "Great American Race."

The top-14 finishers in each Gatorade 125 (with the exception of the already qualified pole winner and outside pole winner) earn positions 3-30 on the staring grid. The rest of the 43-car field is filled based on qualifying speeds and car owner provisional points. The Gatorade 125 don't carry NASCAR Winston Cup Series points, but that doesn't mean drivers aren't competitive.

"If you're leading or second, third fourth or fifth, yeah it means a lot to win that race, but it doesn't pay any points," said driver Jimmy Spencer. "It's the pride of winning it. But if you're 13th, 14th, 15th or 16th and you need to get into the Daytona 500, that's more critical than trying to win a Gatorade 125.

"There's no comparison. If you don't get in that transfer position, you're going home or then you have to rely on a provisional or speed. I went home one time because of it so I know. To me, if I was working the cameras or the radio coverage, I guarantee you I'd be talking about 12th through 16th."

"Fortunately, we were locked in last year," said driver Stacy Compton, who took the outside pole for the Daytona 500. "If you don't run a quick speed, that transfer spot is pretty big. That's almost as big as winning the race. You know you're going to be in if you're in that transfer spot. That's probably one of the toughest races we'll go to."

Elliott Sadler, driver of the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford for the Wood Brothers, knows the heartache of the Gatorade 125's. In both of his starts, he has been collected in wrecks and been forced to use a provisional to make the Daytona 500 field.

"It's a fight for survival," Sadler said. "I haven't made it through one yet. I had to take a provisional every time for the Daytona 500. I haven't had any luck in the 125's."

One driver to keep your eye on during the Gatorade 125's is Dave Marcis. He has announced that the 44th annual Daytona 500 will be his final race as a driver.

"Making the race, that's the deal, trying to get in the Daytona 500," said Marcis, who won a Gatorade 125-mile qualifier in 1976. "That would be very important. I started my Winston Cup career at Daytona and would certainly love to end it with the Daytona 500 in 2002."

Tickets for the Gatorade 125's and the rest of Speedweeks are available online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by calling the Speedway ticket office at (386) 253-7223.

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Series NASCAR-CUP