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Published Feb. 14, 2008

Tucked in the back corner of the garage, far from the overwhelming attention surrounding NASCAR Sprint Cup contenders, three world-class drivers are overlooked in their quest to make the Daytona 500.

They are drivers with five Daytona 500 wins, an Indianapolis 500 win and a Formula One world title among them.

Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin and Jacques Villeneuve are fighting to make the 500 field. None are guaranteed a spot, so all must race their way into the 500 in one of today's two 150-mile qualifying races, the Gatorade Duels.

Only four spots are available for drivers who, like these three, were outside the top 35 in owner points in 2007. And it could be their last chance - Jarrett retires next month, Marlin is running a partial schedule and Villeneuve needs sponsorship to run a full season.

"I haven't really allowed myself to think in the direction," Jarrett, 51, a three-time 500 winner and former series champion, said Wednesday.

The system irritates Marlin, a two-time 500 winner who finds himself on the verge of missing the biggest race of the year.

Marlin, 50, said the system is unfair, pointing to former open-wheel drivers Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish, who will race Sunday in their first Daytona 500s after inheriting top- 35 cars from last season.

"You've got a bunch of guys who got into cars that are locked into the top 35 in points and have never even started a Daytona 500," Marlin said. "That's how the rules are, and we knew that coming down there, I just think there's a better way to do it."

Marlin is in an uphill battle. He was 45th out of 47 cars on the speed chart after final practice, and needs an outstanding race today to make the cut.

"All we can do is fix the car the best we can, hold it wide open for 150 miles and hope we're okay," he said.

Villeneuve, meanwhile, had everything go wrong Wednesday. Battling laryngitis, the former F1 world champ scraped the wall in practice and missed considerable track time while his team assessed the damage.

Driving an unsponsored car, Villeneuve hopes a strong showing would land him the money he needs to run the entire season. Now he's in danger of missing the 500, a setback that could cripple his move to NASCAR.