The tall man in the white shirt stood on the fringes of the celebration, waiting until it was almost over before he worked his way deeper into the crowd. Matt Kenseth had posed for a few photographs and autographed the backdrop that stands behind every Sprint Cup pole winner by the time Doug Yates got close enough to offer a congratulatory handshake and a pat on the back.
And yet, there are few people as crucial to the recent success of Kenseth, as well as the Roush Fenway program as a whole, at Daytona International Speedway. Yates isn't just chairman of the Roush-Yates company that supplies engines to Ford teams on NASCAR's premier circuit. He's also carrying on a family tradition at the sport's most famous race track, one that involves a family beach vacation and too often these days concludes with a celebration in Victory Lane.
"Daytona means a lot to me," Yates said Friday after Kenseth claimed the pole for Saturday night's 400-miler on the big track. "We come down here for family vacation in July every year. It's a family tradition. My dad used to bring me down here when I was a little boy and bring me to the race track. But Daytona is kind of part of the Yates family. We love racing here and running good."
If Yates looks at home within the confines of the Daytona speedway, there's a reason why. His father Robert enjoyed his best days here as an engine builder and then as a car owner, winning the Daytona 500 four times in those two roles combined. The elder Yates built the engine that powered Bobby Allison's DiGard car to victory in the Great American Race in 1982, and then hoisted the Harley J. Earl Trophy three more times as an owner -- once with Davey Allison in 1992, and then with Dale Jarrett in 1996 and 2000. Robert Yates Racing also won a pair of summer races at Daytona, and at its height was the unquestioned standard for performance on the 2.5-mile track.
Doug Yates was there for all of that. After graduating from North Carolina State with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1990, his mother urged him to come and work in the family business. He began overseeing the engine shop for his dad's team, which at the time consisted of one car driven by Davey Allison. Robert Yates Racing won 57 races and the 1999 championship in NASCAR's top division before its namesake retired. For a while, Doug operated the team under the Yates Racing banner while also overseeing the combined engine shop he founded with Jack Roush.
These days his focus may be solely under the hood, but his feel for Daytona remains unmistakable. Doug Yates' group built the engine that powered Kenseth to victory in the Daytona 500 three years ago, and again this past February. It built the engine that helped former Roush driver David Ragan win here last July. It built the engine that Kenseth used to win the pole for Saturday night's event. Over the past few seasons, it's squeezed enough horsepower out of these restricted engines to help transform Roush from a near-afterthought to a major player on the famed high banks.
Of course, no one would expect anything different from a Yates at Daytona.
"I can tell when we come to Daytona that Doug Yates has got a little extra excitement about him, for sure," Kenseth said. "He does a great job. He works as hard as he can for every race we run all year, but certainly I think Daytona has a little extra importance to him. Here and Talladega, qualifying especially is probably more about motor than anything. If you're down five or 10 horsepower, you're not going to sit on the pole, so they've done a great job with that. He definitely takes some pride in it, and it's cool to see him. He was fired up after being on the pole."
It seems backward, that an engine builder would have such an impact at a race track where engines are limited by the presence of restrictor plates. But with so much less to work with -- restricted engines produce roughly half the horsepower they'd put out under regular conditions, and drivers keep the throttle wide open virtually all the way around the track -- every little bit matters that much more. Engine builders take a great deal of pride in restrictor-plate poles, because they know so much of the speed is solely on them. And Yates' engines have now claimed two in a row at Daytona, with Edwards' pole in February preceding Kenseth's Friday.
"For an engine shop and an engine company, it means a lot," Yates said.
Just like it did in his dad's day. These days Robert Yates may be retired and spending some time on the cattle ranch he owns in western North Carolina, but he's still an engine builder at heart, and he can't stay completely away from the shop. Doug Yates was expecting a call from his father shortly after Kenseth won the pole Friday, and said Robert still helps out in the Roush-Yates machine shop, even if he's rarely seen at the track.
"He's a worker," Doug said. "I tell people all the time, they ask me -- 'Why didn't your dad come?' I tell them, 'He's not a spectator, he's a participant.' He doesn't just like to watch. He wants to be a part of it."
Doug will be a key part of Kenseth's bid to sweep the season's two events at Daytona, something that hasn't happened since Bobby Allison did it 30 years ago. "Certainly I think for our team and everything our confidence is high," Kenseth said, "but this race is still kind of a crapshoot. You're never sure exactly what's going to happen. A lot of things can change, but I think we have a fast enough car to put us in the mix if I can figure out how to do the right things and we have everything else go right."
Even so, for the past two winners at Daytona the constant has been a Yates engine under the hood. And Kenseth might have something else in his corner -- the fact that the engine builder for Allison's sweep at Daytona in 1982 was Robert Yates, whose son will attempt to complete the same quest Saturday. Doug divulged that detail to his good friend Kenseth on Thursday. "It would be really cool if we could do that again together," he told the driver.
No question, it would be a historic moment for both Kenseth and his Roush team. And for Doug Yates, it would add another chapter to his family's long and successful legacy at NASCAR's most famous race track.
"To carry on that tradition of winning at Daytona," Yates said, "it's something that's really special to me."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.