DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Bill Elliott led the first nine laps of his qualifying race for the Daytona 500, then virtually disappeared.
Was the pole-winner for NASCAR's biggest race hiding his superiority -- and the dominance of the new Dodges -- before springing it on the rest of the field in Sunday's main event?
Ask the rivals from Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac, and they'll give a knowing smile and nod.
"There's certainly a concern that they may have snookered us all the way around," said Dale Jarrett, a three-time Daytona 500 winner and Ford's leading driver.
Nobody is really all that surprised, though. The new Dodge effort is led by Ray Evernham, the former master crew chief selected by DaimlerChrysler to guide its re-entry into NASCAR's top series after a 16-year absence.
Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports late in the 1999 season to form his own two-car team and direct the development of the new Intrepid and the Dodge V-8 NASCAR engine.
The only recent NASCAR history for Dodge was in the Craftsman Truck Series, where the manufacturer has become a regular winner.
In fact, Joe Ruttman gave Dodge a victory in the season-opening truck race in Daytona on Friday. Jarrett won the day's other race, the International Race of Champions Series event.
In testing over the winter, the new Intrepid R/Ts were slower than the rest of the makes, which worried Evernham.
"We knew it was going to be a tough road," said the man who mentored Jeff Gordon to 47 victories and three Winston Cup championships.
Then came the start of Speedweeks, the official beginning of the new season at Daytona International Speedway.
Elliott, who drives for Evernham, led a Dodge sweep of the front row for Sunday's race with a pole-winning lap of 183.565 mph. Stacy Compton, who had never qualified better than eighth in his brief NASCAR career, will start NASCAR's biggest race alongside the two-time race winner.
Sterling Marlin, also a two-time winner, won one of the 125-mile qualifying races and will start third in yet another of the Intrepids.
Rusty Wallace, another of Ford's top entries, said no one should be surprised, considering that NASCAR gave Evernham and the Dodge designers and engineers last year's Taurus templates for their starting point.
"Somebody told me the 'R/T' on the Dodge meant 'Really a Taurus,' but my Taurus doesn't run like that," said Wallace, who will start 12th in the 43-car field.
Jarrett, 31st in the lineup after crashing during his qualifying race, agreed with Wallace.
"You give Ray Evernham and those guys our car as a starting point and let them go from there, it's not too surprising they're going to make it better," he said. "NASCAR maybe gave them a little more leeway to improve on what was there than they gave our guys."
Some rivals believe NASCAR would like to see its newest entry win in its first outing.
Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, scoffs at such ideas and insists that all the sanctioning body is trying to do is keep things competitive among all four makes.
"Dodge has to follow the same rules as everyone else," Helton said. "I think they've just done a very good job of getting ready to race in a very short time."
Meanwhile, though, all five Dodge teams -- and all 10 of their cars -- made it into the Daytona lineup, with five qualifying among the top 15 and at least two of them -- Elliott and Marlin -- listed among the favorites to win.
"Nobody has given our team or Dodge any kind of advantage," Evernham said. "We've just worked very hard to get to this point, and maybe we've been a little lucky."
Marlin was even more emphatic. "There's no sandbagging," the second-generation stock car star said. "Our guys worked their guts out to build this race team. That's what impresses me when I go to the shop now. Guys are working and you can see the spark in their eyes.
"There's nothing magic or shady about it. Just hard work."
As for Elliott, who finished a quiet 20th in his qualifying race, the 1988 Winston Cup champion shrugged, grinned and said, "There was no need getting stupid out there today. Right now, you've got to look at the big picture."
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