Friday April 15th, 2005

It began with a gentle tap, tap, tap on the shoulder, and NASCAR hasn't been the same since.

Turn the clock back to a gray autumn afternoon in 2003, a day before the Georgia 500 at Atlanta Motorspeedway. That's when Robert Yates, a Ford team owner, spies Jack Roush, another Ford team owner, walking up pit road. Though they haven't even made eye contact all season, Yates decides to approach Roush. He puts his hand on his shoulder, says they need to talk. Roush, to put it mildly, is stunned.

The two owners hadn't said more than five words to each other during the season for 15 years. Unlike the Chevy and Dodge teams, who shared information, the Ford owners viewed each other as sworn enemies. "I honestly didn't know what to think at the time," Roush told me last season. "But I agreed to hear what he had to say." A few weeks later, Roush and Yates had a sit down. After exchanging pleasantries, Yates made a proposition: He had a world-class 85,000-square-foot engine shop in Mooresville, N.C., and he wanted Roush to move in his engine development team and forge a partnership. "I said we'd do it 50-50," recalled Yates. "We would open up everything and share resources and technology."

"I slept on it for 24 hours," says Roush, "and it made a lot of sense, so I agreed. Both of us then put our best pieces on the table, and we both found surprises. We took parts from both our engines, and we were able to increase our horsepower."

Indeed, as soon as Yates -- who has well-deserved reputation for being one of NASCAR's horsepower kings -- and Roush -- who knows how to stretch gas mileage probably better than anyone in the sport -- combined forces, the Fords immediately became quicker. Almost every week in the garage last season you'd see Roush and Yates huddling together under the hood of a car, probing for problems, examining how they could acquire more speed. Slowly, a funny thing happened: The two became friends. Good friends, actually. And as their relationship gained strength, so too did their performance at the race track. Consider: Last year in the final points standings Roush and Yates cars finished first (Kurt Busch), fourth (Mark Martin), eighth (Matt Kenseth) and ninth (Elliott Sadler). In 2004 the Roush-Yates stable also won 10 races and collected 47 Top-10 finishes.

Their dominance has continued this season. Right now the Fords of Roush and Yates occupy half of the top 10 in the points standings (Greg Biffle is second, Sadler is third, Martin is fourth, Busch is ninth and Dale Jarrett is 10th.) And this weekend the Cup circuit visits what is perhaps Roush's and Yates' best tack: Texas Motor Speedway. The two owners have won five of the eight Cup races that have been held on the 1.5 mile-track, and there is little reason to think that they won't flex some serious muscle in Texas on Sunday. I expect three of the top-5 finishers to come from the Roush-Yates stable, with Jarrett taking the checkers.

Why Jarrett? Well, he won in the Lone Star State in 2001, and he leads all active Cup drivers in laps led at Texas with 407, which means his team knows the proper setup for the track. Jarrett is also one of only two Cup drivers who's competed in all eight events at Texas and not had a DNF, which shows that Jarrett understands how to preserve his equipment at the 1.5-mile speedway.

So far Jarrett has quietly put together a nice season. On Sunday he'll announce his arrival as a serious player in the drive for the championship.

Last weekend was a strong one for us crystal-ball gazers here at SI. My pick to win at Martinsville (Jeff Gordon) blazed to Victory Lane. Rich O'Brien, SI's NASCAR editor, had tabbed Mark Martin to win it all last Sunday, and Martin finished third. For the season, I hold a 101-point lead (334 to 233) over Rich.

So who does Rich like in Texas? "Lars has graciously allowed me to pick first this week (that is, I griped enough that he gave in), so I think I'm going to be beating him to the punch," he says. "As Lars points out, the Roush-Yates cars figure to be the stars in the Lone Star State. Out of that bunch, I'm going to hook my star to Elliott Sadler.

"Elliott is the defending champ (I know Texas has had no repeat winners, but I think he's going to be the first). And he loves Texas Motor Speedway, calling it 'by far my favorite track.' Plus, I've been very impressed with the M&M team this season. Sadler and crew chief Todd Parrott have gotten the most out of the 38 car in each outing.

"Going into Bristol and Martinsville, Sadler said that the team would be just 'hoping to tread water' during those back-to-back short-track races. Instead he made some serious waves, finishing second and ninth. That speaks to the team's preparation. Now they're coming to a track that suits them to a Texas-sized T. Look for Sadler to gallop into the winner's circle."

So there you have it. If nothing else, Rich and I agree on this: Pay close attention to the Yates boys on Sunday.

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