With so many cars trying to qualify for next Sunday’s NASCAR Nextel Cup Daytona 500, speed is a necessity. Robert Yates Racing showed up in top form despite a chaotic end to the 2006 season. Midway through last season, veteran driver Dale Jarrett made his announcement that he would leave RYR at the end of the 2006 season to join Michael Waltrip racing and take his sponsor, UPS, with him. Around the same time, RYR’s other Nextel Cup driver Elliott Sadler jumped ship immediately to Evernham Racing to replace Jeremy Mayfield who had been ousted from the #19 Dodge. Left in a lurch, rumors swirled about the end of RYR all together or a possible merge with other teams.
RYR put those rumors to rest this weekend at the beginning of the hoopla that is speed weeks. Rookie David Gilliland, who took over the #38 M&Ms Ford after Elliott Sadler left last season, was joined by veteran driver and RYR friend Ricky Rudd in the #88 Snickers Ford. RYR came ready to race and consistently sat at the top of the speed charts for the Nextel Cup practice runs. Gilliland also surprised critics with a second place finish in the Budwiser Shootout–his first appearance on the Daytona track in Nextel Cup competition. The inexperienced driver showed poise and patience as he worked his way to the front of the pack.
The impressive showing didn’t end there as both RYR cars will start in the front row of the Daytona 500–Gilliland on the pole and Rudd on the outside poll. Neither driver will have to deal with the uncertainty that is the Gatorade Duels on Thursday in order to determine their place on the starting grid. As the Shootout proved on Saturday night, cars work best out front rather than in traffic, so RYR has an advantage for the “SuperBowl of NASCAR” next Sunday.
Time will tell if RYR is really back together or if this is just another strong showing at restrictor plate track qualifying for an organization that generally excels in those races.