Kerry Earnhardt agonizingly close

Updated: February 17, 2005, 9:36 PM ET
Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kerry Earnhardt has spent a lifetime trying to live up to his father's legacy.

He came up short again.

By just a few inches.

The lesser-known racing son of "The Intimidator'' just missed a spot in the Daytona 500 on Thursday, barely beaten to the line in the first of two 150-mile qualifying races.

It was a familiar scenario for Earnhardt, who has long raced in the shadow of his late father, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, and his younger half-brother, 2004 Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I can't really say any more,'' Kerry Earnhardt said. "I'm going home now.''

Well, not quite. In the evening, Earnhardt returned to the track and won the pole for Friday night's truck series race at Daytona International Speedway.

It was his first career pole in a major racing series. But he didn't make the race he really wanted -- Sunday's Daytona 500.

Junior, who already was assured of a spot in the 43-car field, marked himself as a leading contender by finishing a close second to teammate Michael Waltrip in the opening 150-miler.

A few car lengths back, Kerry Earnhardt approached the checkered flag with a slight edge on Kenny Wallace. But Earnhardt got trapped behind another car, and Wallace slipped past him for 10th place.

That gave Wallace a spot in the biggest race of the year, and left Earnhardt with a slim chance to get in based on the results of the second 150.

Watching the race on television in his hauler, Earnhardt saw his hopes sink when Kevin Lepage and Martin Truex Jr. finished third and fourth -- good enough to earn the final two berths in the 500.

"It was very agonizing to see those cars finish up like that,'' Earnhardt said. "The tough part is having the guys work all winter on the car. They've done a lot of hard work, then it comes down to not making the race. It's very frustrating for the guys.''

And certainly frustrating for Earnhardt, whose career has been stuck in neutral while his younger brother quickly became one of the sport's biggest stars.

Hoping to give Kerry a boost, car owner Richard Childress set up a four-race deal for the superspeedways in Daytona and Talladega, and put Earnhardt in car No. 33.

That, of course, was a nod to Dale Earnhardt, who drove the black No. 3 car for Childress' team. The Intimidator was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.

"I don't think he's had good equipment,'' Childress said as he walked through the garage. "We're going to keep working on it. If we give him good equipment, I think he'll do a good job with it. I've not lost confidence in him.''

But it hasn't been easy for Earnhardt to live up to his family name. He's spent most of his career in racing's minor leagues, trying desperately to prove that he's worthy of a Cup ride. At age 35, he's running out of time.

"I think there's a lot of pressure on him,'' Childress said. "That's why it would have been good for him to get in this race. He tried to so hard and came so close.''

Kerry and Dale Jr., who is 5 years younger, didn't have much of a relationship while they were growing up. While racing has brought them closer together, they are still two very different people.

Junior is a charismatic product of the MTV era, already the most popular guy in the sport. Kerry is much more reserved, barely getting noticed as he moves through the garage, though he does resemble his father with a thick, reddish mustache.

Kerry had a strong car and plenty of help Thursday, starting with his younger brother.

"I told him before the race started I was going to push him. He said, 'If you see somewhere to go, go, and I'll try to get in there, too.' He must have figured some things out,'' Junior said.

Kerry had a tire problem early in the race, causing him to scrape the outside wall, but he caught a break when the other leaders pitted at the same time he was in. Greg Biffle stayed on Earnhardt's rear bumper, pushing him along in the draft -- a crucial part of restrictor-plate racing.

"I don't think I have a bumper left, he was pushing me up there so much,'' Earnhardt said.

In the end, he couldn't hold off Wallace.

"It has been frustrating,'' Earnhardt said. "If I had one more lap, I think I would have been up there with Dale Jr. I just ran out of time.''

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press