Junior hopes to make up ground in traffic
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to a slow start in defense of his Daytona 500 title, blaming a poor qualifying effort on engine problems.
"It's hard to do it by myself,'' he said. "We're way, way down on horsepower and that's just the simple fact of it ... we've been real slow since we've been here.''
Earnhardt ended up 39th on the speed chart following Sunday's first round of qualifying. Except for first and second -- won by Dale Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson -- the rest of the starting positions for next week's Daytona 500 aren't determined until after a pair of qualifying races Thursday.
Earnhardt had a brilliant Speed Weeks last year, winning one of the qualifying races to earn the third starting spot for the 500. He went on to win the 500, as well as the Busch Series event, and finished second in the Budweiser Shootout.
This year hasn't started as well. An electrical problem led his team to overhaul the car during a break in Saturday night's Shootout and he never challenged for the win. He finished seventh.
But Earnhardt said he's confident the No. 8 Chevrolet is good in race mode, and that the team knew qualifying was going to be a challenge.
"Our expectations have been low,'' he said. "But the car is good in race trim. When you don't have as fast a car, it makes it a little tougher. But I think I can get it up front. We're just going to have to work a little harder.''
All of Dale Earnhardt Inc. has ground to make up: Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip qualified 33rd and Martin Truex Jr. was 31st.
Robby Gordon, who borrowed a motor from DEI to replace the illegal one he had confiscated by NASCAR, also struggled and was 38th.
It's only practice, people
Kevin Harvick was widely criticized for skipping the January testing session at Daytona, a practice session most teams use as a tune-up for the season-opener.
Turns out, Harvick didn't need the extra work.
Harvick posted the fourth fastest lap in Sunday's qualifying for the Daytona 500, a race he and his Richard Childress Racing team are usually very competitive in.
"I wish everyone would be quiet and give (crew chief) Todd Berrier and this team some credit,'' Harvick said after turning his lap. "Just leave us alone and let us do our thing. We've really taken a lot of flack this offseason for not showing up to the test.''
Harvick and Berrier did not attend the test, sending an old car and driver Kerry Earnhardt to wheel it around the track. The test is not mandatory, but viewed as critical to get the season started off right.
Harvick was not alone in skipping the test: Tony Stewart also stayed home. But he wasn't as strong on Sunday, qualifying 28th.
Fast cars left at home on purpose
Ricky Rudd knows his Ford is fast at restrictor-plate tracks. A year ago, he put the No. 21 on the front row twice at Talladega and qualified it third at Daytona.
But strong qualifying laps weren't carrying over into the races and Rudd couldn't parlay his good starting spots into Top 10 finishes.
It led him to make a radical decision in preparation for the Daytona 500: Rudd left cars he knew could challenge for the pole at home in favor of cars that would be stronger on race day.
"When we made the decision to bring this car we knew we waved off on a chance for the pole,'' Rudd said after qualifying ninth. "The car we sat on the front row with at Talladega, we brought it here for the test and it was quite a bit quicker than this car. But it didn't race or drive as good.''
New qualifying procedures allowed Rudd to change his strategy. Because the top 35 teams in the points last season are guaranteed starting spots, Rudd knew he was making the race no matter how he qualified.
So he didn't have to worry about making the race on speed and instead could focus on trying to win the 500.
"With the new format we said we want to race good and we knew we were locked in on a starting position, so lets get a car that really races good,'' he said.
Biffle's day up on smoke from the start
Sitting in his motorhome watching qualifying on television, Greg Biffle learned his shot at winning the pole had gone up in flames -- literally.
Biffle's No. 16 Ford caught fire while sitting on pit road because of a short circuit in an oil tank line. The fire was put out, but much of the cockpit was charred in a car Biffle considered strong.
He still made his qualifying lap, ending up 14th, and a little queezy from the experience.
"I knew that there was going to be some of the fire extinguisher chemical inside the car and it was the worst taste ever in my mouth,'' Biffle said. "That was the thing I was worried about most making my qualifying laps was that it smelled so bad inside the car with all that chemical in there -- under the seat and everywhere. That was probably the worst time I've ever had in a race car.''
Biffle said his Roush Racing team will attempt the clean the car out and continue to use it this week instead of going to a backup Ford.
But after a promising fifth-place finish in Saturday night's exhibition race, the fast start to the season that Biffle had hoped to get off to had been derailed.
"It just seems like our season isn't starting out like we need it to,'' Biffle said.
Different strokes for reality show folks
Mark Martin spent his morning serving as the honorary best man in the wedding of "Survivor: Vanuatu'' winner Chris Daugherty and Lorie Groves.
Daugherty is a self-professed Martin fan and wanted to be married in Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway.
"You don't pass up an opportunity to get married at Daytona, especially in Victory Lane,'' said Daugherty. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.''
Martin found the ceremony amusing, but said he doubted his own wife, Arlene, would have gone for it.
"It would be fun for me, but I am not sure Arlene would have gone for it,'' Martin said. "It shows you the commitment that the fans have to the sport and the love they have for racing.''
ARCA injury update
ARCA driver Billy Venturini remained hospitalized Sunday with injuries suffered in a late accident during Saturday's race.
Venturini was scheduled for surgery to fix a fractured vertebrae, the disc below his second vertebrae and damaged ligaments. A family spokesperson said the 28-year-old was not suffering any paralysis and is talkative and in good spirits.
Venturini was injured in a 13-car accident two laps from the finish.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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