DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Daytona 500 is still three days
away and already NASCAR is in midseason form. The Dale Earnhardt
Inc. team is running out in front and Kevin Harvick is being rapped
for reckless driving.
Michael Waltrip passed DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the
final straightaway to win the first of two 150-mile qualifying
races Thursday, while Tony Stewart won the second race after
Harvick bumped leader Jimmie Johnson and ignited a wild crash.
Waltrip's victory put to rest speculation that the DEI team's
days of dominance are over.
"We certainly caught a lot of flak over the last week about the
way our cars qualified," Waltrip said. "This silenced it."
It's hardly unusual for Waltrip and Earnhardt to wind up at the
front of a race at Daytona International Speedway, where the two
have combined to win three of the last four 500-mile races and a
qualifying race each of those years.
This year, though, it was far from a certainty -- especially
after defending 500 champion Earnhardt struggled in the non-points
Budweiser Shootout on the 2½-mile oval and he and Waltrip qualified
39th and 33rd in time trials last week.
As for the dramatic pass that brought him the win, Waltrip said,
"I plan out moves like that all the time and they never work."
But Waltrip, who won by .030 seconds -- about half a car length --
wasn't surprised by the 1-2 DEI finish.
"After practice yesterday, I knew we'd be a force in the 150
and the Daytona 500," the two-time 500 winner said.
Earnhardt, who fought an ill-handling car early in the race,
wasn't surprised, either.
"It just seems to go in cycles," Earnhardt said. "We had our
run and we've all known over the last couple of years they've been
closing the gap. Yet we ain't falling off to the point when we
can't compete. Everybody is working hard to catch us, and
eventually they will."
Jeff Gordon, a two-time Daytona winner who finished seventh in
the first race, isn't so sure about that.
"They've never qualified good. They've always, you know, been
mediocre in practice, and they always go in the race," he said.
"I'd like to know what it is that they got, because they obviously
know how to sandbag well."
Midway through the second race, Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's
Hendrick Motorsports teammate who trailed only three-time Daytona
winner Dale Jarrett in pole qualifying last Sunday, was out front
when he was bumped by Harvick. Johnson's Chevrolet was turned
sideways, igniting the crash that took out top contenders Johnson,
Harvick, Mark Martin, Joe Nemechek and Rusty Wallace.
Johnson was furious, saying Harvick should know better than to
bump draft in the turns. He said Harvick should be fired by team
owner Richard Childress and penalized by NASCAR.
"It's a shame," Johnson said. "He tore up six or seven good
Harvick said Johnson bobbled in the turn.
"I just got to him and he checked up and I got to him and I
couldn't get off of him," Harvick said. "I just spun him out and
I feel sorry for the teams and everybody involved. It's not
something where you want to bump draft in the middle of the
Waltrip, who was watching the second race, wouldn't let Harvick
off the hook. "It was Harvick's option not to run him over,"
Waltrip said. "If you're in the turn, you don't hit the guy."
Stewart held off Jeff Burton, Harvick's Richard Childress Racing
teammate, for the second race win, crossing the finish line about
two car-lengths in front.
Mike Skinner, a regular in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck series and
driving here for Bill Davis Racing, led the opener after the third
caution flag of the race. He appeared on the way to victory until
the DEI cars ganged up on him at the end.
Kevin Lepage finished third in the second race, earning a
starting spot in the field, as did fourth-place finisher Martin
Truex Jr., the third DEI car.
A rule change this year guaranteed the top 35 teams in car owner
points starting spots on Sunday. Four more drivers made it on speed
and the final four positions were up for grabs Thursday.
Drivers who failed to make the field included Kerry Earnhardt,
Dale's older half-brother who lost out when he was passed in the
final yards by Kenny Wallace, and Robby Gordon, a seven-time
Daytona veteran fielding his own team this year.
But the news wasn't all bad for Kerry. On Thursday night, he won
the first pole of his career in qualifying for Friday's Craftsman
Truck series race.