DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Once the darling of Winston Cup racing, Bill Elliott found a victory lane at Daytona International Speedway for the first time in eight years yesterday, when he won his half of the Gatorade Twin 125-Mile Qualifying races. And it was Ricky Rudd, winning at the track for the first time in his 23-year career, in the other half.
Elliott took the lead on the second lap of the 50-lap race and was never challenged, while Rudd led from start to finish.
With the front-row starting positions already determined by time trials for Sunday's Daytona 500, the twin qualifying races determine the starting lineup for positions 3 through 30. The final 13 starting spots are allotted on speed (six spots) and by provisionals (seven) based on car owners' point standings from 1999.
The Twins also are supposed to provide a glimpse of what's in store in the big race. But many of the approximately 150,000 fans who left here yesterday afternoon must hope what they saw won't be repeated.
The Twins were the most uneventful qualifying races in the history of the events. They looked more like Formula One races than Winston Cup stock car races.
Tony Stewart, who finished fourth, inadvertently compared it to a sports car race in which different car classes run on the track at the same time.
"We were best in class," said Stewart of his Pontiac. "We can run with the pack, we just can't run with those guys who ran up front today."
The guys up front in both races were driving Fords.
All week there has been a debate over whether the Chevrolets and Pontiacs need help, in the form of rule changes, to make their cars equal to the Fords.
Yesterday pole-sitter and Ford driver Dale Jarrett said differences between the race cars were non issues, insisting "it now comes down to working on your race car and making it handle."
But Chevy driver Dale Earnhardt was adamant about the disparity.
"That's the worst racing I've seen at Daytona in a long time," he said after his record streak of consecutive 125 qualifying victories ended at 10. He placed 11th, outside the top 10 for the first time since 1984.
"They took racing out of the hands of the drivers and the crews," he said. "We can't adjust and make our cars drive like we want. They took good racing and turned it into this. This is a joke. It's a joke."
Coming into Daytona, NASCAR made a rule that required every team to use the same shock absorber and spring packages. NASCAR handed out the shocks, just as it hands out the restrictor plate for the Super Speedway races here at Daytona and Talladega, Ala.
The first test of those packages came in pole qualifying, which was dominated by the Ford teams. Designs of both the Fords and the Chevys are new this year, but because of the shape of the Fords' nose, they are considered to be the better of the two cars.
The next test came Sunday in the Bud Shootout, the all-star race for last season's pole winners. Jarrett, the Winston Cup pole-sitter, won again. But there was some passing during the 25-lap race and NASCAR officials said they did not plan any immediate rule changes.
Wednesday, Earnhardt was already troubled by the impact of the changes.
"It's like turning back the clock to the old days, before anyone knew how to fine-tune cars," he said then. "It's just, `Throw the springs in and go boys.' "
NASCAR officials Mike Helton and Gary Nelson said after the race that no rule changes will be made for the 500.
"We have the 43 best teams in the world out there and I know they're going to press on," said Helton, senior vice president and chief operating officer. "They're going to go to work hard for the Daytona 500."
Nelson, the Winston Cup Series' director, said crew chiefs can still change the front springs, and he believes Sunday's race will be totally different from yesterday's.
The Twins were a snooze.
"I heard a lot of people snoring," said Mike Skinner, who earned the outside starting spot in the second row for Sunday by finishing second to Rudd.
Elliott's Ford beat Jarrett's to the finish line by 0.171 seconds and averaged 188.758 mph to win. In the second race, Rudd's Ford beat Skinner's Chevy by 0.468 seconds while averaging 188.048 mph. Each of them won $46,921.
Competitors in both races said, however, that if a Chevrolet or Pontiac had managed to be in the lead at the start, the Fords would not have been able to pass them either.
In that respect, the rules have made everyone equal.
"All of our cars push," said Skinner. "If NASCAR makes a little bit of a rule change in the shocks, it will take care of it. If not, it will be like trying to re-invent the wheel."
The only thing that seemed to please everybody was Elliott and Rudd winning. Both are hoping to make the most of second chances.
Elliott, who won qualifying races here in 1985, 1986 and 1992 and the Daytona 500 in 1985, has not won any race since 1994. He learned last season that he will lose his sponsor at the end of this year, and performing well this season is critical in his efforts to attract another sponsor to continue his race team.
Meanwhile, Rudd's streak of 16 straight years with at least one win ended last season and lost his long-time sponsor. He was making plans to fold his team when Robert Yates hired him to run as teammate to Jarrett.