-- The car to drive in Sunday's Daytona 500 is a Chevrolet. And to really boost your chances of winning NASCAR's biggest race, it will help to belong to a multi-car operation, with teammates to provide that crucial aerodynamic push through traffic.
Such was the moral of today's 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway, in which a pair of Chevy teammates finished 1-2 in both races to sweep the top four starting spots in the season-opening Daytona 500.
In the process, the qualifying heats set up a compelling showdown between Richard Childress Racing, which fielded race cars for the late Dale Earnhardt, and the seven-time champion's own team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., now run by his widow.
Childress drivers finished 1-2 in the first qualifying race, with Robby Gordon taking the checkered flag just 0.142 seconds ahead of teammate Jeff Green, who had locked up the pole for Sunday's race by turning in the fastest lap in Monday's time trials (186.606 mph).
In the second race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 38 of 50 laps to claim his second victory at Daytona in six days. He was followed across the line by teammate Michael Waltrip, who led him across the Daytona 500 finish line two years ago -- the race in which the elder Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash.
Looking to Sunday, that means the front two rows of stock-car racing's biggest event will be composed of four Chevrolets owned by Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, and his former boss, and driven by racers and serviced by mechanics whose history and grief have been intertwined these last two years.
For Earnhardt Jr., today's victory came on the heels of his rout in Saturday's Bud Shootout, an all-star preliminary to the Daytona 500. And he made no secret about his goal of sweeping his remaining events on the 2.5-mile superspeedway -- Saturday's 300-mile Grand National race and Sunday's 500-miler.
Yet he spoke wistfully about the ambivalence he felt over having such a powerful car for just his fourth Daytona 500, considering how hard his father had struggled to win the race, finally succeeding after 20 years of futility. Each defeat was etched in his son's memory.
"Going through that, I realize how big this race is," said Earnhardt Jr., 28. "It's weird for me because I've got a chance to win it so early and I don't know what to think about that. I don't know whether to appreciate it. It's like it's something that you earn the chance to win this race."
The purpose of today's 50-lap sprints, punctuated by one pit stop for fuel, was to set Sunday's starting order for positions 3-43 after Green and Earnhardt Jr. locked up the front row during time trials.
With 50 cars vying for 43 spots in the race, seven drivers were sent packing. Among them: 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope; former crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine, who won 44 races and five championships with Earnhardt in the late '80s and early '90s; and Larry Foyt, son of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J Foyt.
Today's qualifiers also provided a first look at how NASCAR's offseason rules changes will likely affect Sunday's race. Two changes, in particular, are worth noting.
The bodies of the four makes of cars -- Chevrolet, Ford, Pontiac and Dodge -- are now virtually identical under an edict by NASCAR. The intent was to take away a given brand's aerodynamic advantage at the hulking superspeedway, where sleeker cars run faster.
To some drivers, too much parity is proving a bad thing.
"You just can't pass," driver Sterling Marlin said. "The 500 is going to come down to who will follow who for 180 laps, and then race the last 20. They need to do something to bust [the dense traffic] up."
NASCAR has attempted to do just that by shrinking the cars' gas tanks (known as fuel cells) from 22 to 13.5 gallons for races at its two biggest tracks, Daytona and Talladega. That means drivers must stop for gas roughly every 35 laps instead of every 50, which ideally will help string out the cars and cut down on multi-car pileups.
But shoddy work in the pits proved costly today for Kurt Busch, who veered onto pit lane so fast he had to slam on his brakes and cut across three lanes of traffic to reach his assigned stall. En route, Busch was slammed by Kevin Harvick, who couldn't avoid him, and Busch proceeded to knock his own jack man on the car's hood. The crewman wasn't injured.
Harvick bore the brunt of the collision and retired from the race with handling problems.
Rusty Wallace's bad news came in a post-race inspection that uncovered a problem with his carburetor. If found illegal, Wallace will lose his eighth-place starting spot and likely be slapped with a fine. It would come as a bitter disappointment to many race-day fans, who have been promised a coupon worth a free six-pack of beer by Wallace's sponsor, Miller Lite, if the driver wins Sunday's race.