Jarrett a favorite, but not because of pole
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The final pick of the NFL draft each year gets tagged with the sometimes unwelcome nickname, "Mr. Irrelevant."
What does that have to do with the Daytona 500 pole winner?
Well, for those paying attention so far at Speed Weeks, it may be a more appropriate title than ever for the fastest driver in Sunday's best-of-two-lap pole qualifying, which wound up being Dale Jarrett.
That's no knock on Jarrett, a former Nextel Cup champion who is shooting for his fourth Daytona 500 victory, a feat accomplished by only Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough in the history books.
Consider Jarrett's own comments on the subject before he went out and won the pole. Jarrett, battling the flu the past several days, said he was glad qualifying was being diminished in importance this year by new NASCAR rules.
"It's really about the races anyway," Jarrett said. "I think we put too much emphasis on qualifying up to this point."
For his pole-winning efforts, Jarrett will line up his No. 88 UPS Ford first among a 43-car field in next Sunday's race. He gets the best spot on pit road, which is the only real significance left, unless you count that Bud Pole plaque.
And Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Budweiser driver, doesn't.
"Seems like you should get more than that plaque," Junior said.
Because new rules give 35 guaranteed entries into next Sunday's race -- those spots being reserved for the top 35 in last year's car owner points -- nobody seems too worried about pole day anymore.
Junior, the defending Daytona 500 champion, treated the day like he'd promised to all along, going on a Sunday drive more or less and qualifying with a relatively slow speed of 184.888 mph. That was only the 39th-fastest speed of the day.
And that wasn't surprising: Junior had the 34th-fastest time in Saturday's second practice session after being 41st in the first session.
Compare Junior's qualifying speed to the pole-winning mark of 188.312 mph, and it's clear Junior is serious when he tells everyone the race is the thing, not who's fast for a lap on a clear track.
"We're not running that good by ourselves," Junior said. "But when they put them all out there together, it'll be the strongest one."
The rest of the qualifying order, and four more outright berths into the race, will be up for grabs on Thursday in the Gatorade Twin 150s.
Which is why a driver like Geoffrey Bodine, who was 55th out of 57 drivers in qualifying, wasn't sweating the day in the first place. He doesn't have a spot in the race yet, but he wasn't going to get one Sunday, either.
"We're not top 35 [from last year]," Bodine said before making his qualifying run. "And we won't be top two today. So we've got to race our way in. If we do well enough Thursday, we'll be in the 500."
Drivers who have been around all say the same thing. This race, more than any other, is about the draft come race day.
"You just can't do it on your own here," said Tony Stewart, who last year finished second to Junior after the two worked through traffic together all day. "Most places you can drive away on your own, but not here."
Stewart was mediocre in qualifying, too, but what matters is whether or not his race car can move through traffic, and we'll find out more on Thursday.
All of this Jarrett understands perfectly well.
But while the pole victory itself might not be relevant to winning the Daytona 500, Jarrett also realizes he will be a force not because of his starting spot, but because the car he won the pole with was chosen for its drafting prowess, not speed.
And that fact alone should cause concern for the rest of the field.
"I think we can be considered a car and team to beat on Sunday," he said.
Johnson will be another favorite not because he's starting in the second spot, but because last season's Nextel Cup runner-up looks formidable again, as seen in his non-points Shootout victory.
"It's a little bit of a surprise," Johnson said of qualifying second. "We wanted to make sure we had a good race car, and for it to be second [in qualifying] is very, very satisfying."
Fans seemed to grasp that qualifying is ho-hum, as evidenced by a clear lack of them on Sunday. The grandstands and infield seemed positively barren, another fact not lost on Jarrett and one that didn't concern him.
"Unless I missed something, watching those cars go around here two laps at a time isn't very exciting," Jarrett said. "There are a lot of other things people would rather do. I don't know how long it took -- six or eight hours? -- I watched college basketball and golf."
The six or eight hours reference was meant as a joke (it was really 3½ hours). But the underlying point was not, and it was accurate: Pole Day isn't very relevant.
So while Jarrett and Johnson will happily take their 1-2 starting spots in the 47th Daytona 500, they'd surely trade them for a spot in the winner's circle.
Justin Hagey is motorsports editor for ESPN.com.
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