Practice speeds are often irrelevant at Daytona. For one driver, however, it was a relief to get off to a fast start after a tumultuous off-season.
Elliott Sadler, who nearly lost his ride in December, turned in the fastest performance by a Dodge in the Daytona 500 morning qualifying session. There will be one more practice for pole qualifying in the afternoon.
This was a session with cars going on solo qualifying runs, so the speeds are more relevant than they would be in a drafting practice.
Since the introduction of the new car, Dodge traditionally qualifies all of its cars well toward the back of the field.
They simply don't have the horsepower to compete in superspeedway (Talladega, Daytona) qualifying, but Dodge's superior handling at these same tracks usually brings them quickly to the front.
Sadler was 17th in the morning practice, far faster than his teammates (Reed Sorenson at 29th, A.J. Allmendinger at 30th, and Kasey Kahne at 38th).
The Richard Petty Motorports cars were the four fastest Dodges, further displaying the manufacturer's struggles with speed on single-car runs.
Bill Elliott turned in a surprising performance for the Wood Brothers (nearly shuttered at the end of 2008) in the No. 21 Little Debbie Ford to grab the top speed in the session.
Ford also had the second-fastest car with another "old guy," Bobby Labonte in the No. 96 for Yates Racing. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five.
Since only the top two cars will lock themselves into the Daytona field tomorrow, the speeds are not particularly important for the Dodges, who have no realistic shot at the pole.
It is vitally important for Sadler to get off to a good start this season in an effort to silence the critics who believe he doesn't deserve to be in the ride.
He will start second (by draw) in tonight's Bud Shootout, but next Sunday is when the real pressure will begin.
After the first Daytona 500 qualifying practice, so far, so good.