Yates-Roush combo looking strong early on

The dream team is two for two.

When Robert Yates Racing and Roush Racing formed a power alliance during the offseason, the objective was to develop a superior engine. After Dale Jarrett won the Bud Shootout Saturday night and Greg Biffle won the Daytona 500 pole Sunday it seems their goal has been met.

"Certainly everybody has a fair chance at winning the 500 and I thought that we had an opportunity to win it," said Biffle, after giving Roush Racing its first Daytona 500 pole. "I never thought I'd have an opportunity to sit on the pole, but now my chances of winning the 500 are extremely better than they were."

Not only are Biffle's chances better, so are the rest of those using the Yates/Roush power plant. That includes Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch, Ricky Rudd and Elliott Sadler -- who qualified on the outside of the front row for the 46th running of the "Great American Race".

"We had a long season last year and we're bound and determined to prove everybody wrong coming here to Daytona, and I think we're off to a pretty good start," asserted Sadler, who finished 22nd in 2003 points. "It's just unbelievable horsepower we've had since we unloaded."

Aside from sweeping the front row, four of the top five Daytona 500 qualifying speeds were recorded by a driver using the Yates/Roush hybrid. Last season there was just one Ford in the top five and only four in the top 20.

This was the improvement that Ford Racing field manager Robin Pemberton envisioned when he brokered a deal between Robert Yates and Jack Roush toward the end of last season. Pemberton should receive awards for diplomacy considering how competitive these two rivals had been.

"We wouldn't acknowledge one another," explained Roush. "We wouldn't have eye contact. We wouldn't shake hands."

For years Roush and Yates have been the premier players beneath the Ford umbrella, but they refused to work together until now.

"It was kind of a sibling rivalry thing that Ford saw as a problem," said Roush. "If they invested money on a development program with Robert, they wouldn't share it with me. And if they invested with me, I insisted they wouldn't give it to Robert."

Perhaps the biggest reason Ford saw this contentious relationship as a problem is because of a looming threat. Toyota, which enters NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series this year carrying a reputation for its relentless pursuit of championships, might be only a couple years away from entering the Nextel Cup Series.

"With looking at what Dodge is doing and looking at the way the Chevrolet programs work and what the other manufacturers coming (Toyota) are gonna do by reputation and the plans they've made, it was clear the way Robert and I had been conducting our affairs was not gonna work."

For now, the Ford family feud has been resolved.

"We're 50/50 partners to the dirt right now and we're committed to go down the road," said Roush. "Our race teams are gonna run closer together than they could have otherwise."

Roush and Yates first discussed the potential of an alliance during an informal meeting in Yates' motor coach at Martinsville (Va.) last fall. The premise was to combine Roush fuel mileage and RPM with Yates horsepower.
Over the last three months the two have combined resources, financial and otherwise, to unlock the full potential of the Ford engine.

"There have been a lot of things that I hadn't thought about that I saw that (Yates) had done very well and, to their surprise, a number of things they saw that the Roush guys had done better than they had thought," Roush said. "That has manifested itself in a bigger gain in our engines than I have had from one year to the next and I think than they've had, so we're way ahead of where we were last year."

One insider with Yates estimated they've gained up to 10 horsepower since the conclusion of 2003. A source at Roush indicated that their gains might be as high as 15 horsepower from a year ago.

This is all being accomplished with a motor design that is 11 years old. Ford will introduce a new cylinder head later this year, but because they are still conducting reliability tests that might not be until early summer.

"The cylinder head is having no impact here, but even though the joint venture between Roush, Ford and Yates happened fairly late in the season, we've been very pleased to see some improvement in the short term," said Greg Specht, North American operations manager for Ford Racing.

The 2004 Taurus does have a new nose and tail, which has undoubtedly contributed to this week's success in Daytona. Still, everyone at Ford understands it's not how you start Speedweeks, it's how you finish that matters.

"I firmly believe we're in better shape, relatively speaking, than we were last year, but whether we're good enough remains to be seen," added Specht. "Winning the Daytona 500 is the barometer. We won't be happy until we win this race."

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.