Archive for Friday, February 14, 2003

Earnhardt Jr., Gordon win twin 125-mile qualifiers

February 14, 2003


— Two races down and two to go for Junior.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came into Speed Weeks as the favorite for Sunday's Daytona 500, raced to an overpowering victory Thursday in a 125-mile qualifier.

That followed an impressive win Saturday night in the non-points Bud Shootout.

Now, all that's left are Saturday's Koolerz 300 Busch Series race and, of course, the Daytona 500, NASCAR's biggest event.

"I want to win the Busch race and the Cup race," Earnhardt said of Sunday's Winston Cup event. "I want to compete in anything I'm competing in. I'm a terrible loser. I was disappointed not to win the pole, especially losing to Jeff Green, who wasn't somebody you expected to win."

Green nipped Earnhardt for the top qualifying position in the 500 with a lap that was 0.058-second faster. That relegated Earnhardt to the outside of Sunday's front row.

Robby Gordon won the opener of the twin 125-mile qualifiers Thursday, holding off Green, his Richard Childress Racing teammate who is Sunday's pole-winner.

After watching Junior hold off his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip in the nightcap, Gordon was not intimidated.

"I heard Junior say that he hopes he can sweep this deal," the former CART Champ Car star said. "My goal is that he doesn't sweep the deal.

"He and Michael have been real strong in restrictor plate races. RCR has a great history at restrictor plate races, as well, and I'm going to do everything I can to give Richard his second Daytona 500 victory."

The only win for Childress so far in the 500 came in 1998, when Dale Earnhardt, who won six of his seven championships with RCR, took the checkered flag in his 17th try.

The elder Earnhardt, killed in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500, was considered the best driver at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's biggest and fastest tracks and the only tracks at which the sanctioning body requires carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars by sapping horsepower.

Junior and Waltrip have combined to win six of the last eight plate race, four of them by Earnhardt.

Kevin Harvick was able to mount a challenge to Earnhardt early in their 50-lap race, but a collision in the pits took Harvick out of picture. After that, the only driver who could stay with Little E's powerful No. 8 Chevrolet was Waltrip, the 2001 Daytona 500 winner.

On Thursday, Earnhardt started from the pole but surrendered the lead briefly to RCR's Kevin Harvick.

"I accidentally lost the lead to the 29 car trying to help Michael in the draft," Earnhardt said. "Otherwise, I think I could have led at least to the pit stops."

Earnhardt regained the top spot on lap 18 of the 50-lap event and gave it up for only two more laps when he pitted on lap 31.

At the end, the only driver with a shot at him was Waltrip, who couldn't quite get close enough.

Earnhardt won by 0.155-seconds -- about two car-lengths.

Bunched behind Waltrip were Todd Bodine, Rusty Wallace, reigning Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, John Andretti and two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott.

NASCAR is requiring smaller gas tanks this week, to try to break up the big, dangerous packs of cars common to plate racing. The small tanks added a pit stop to Thursday's races, and both were eventful.

In the second race, Kurt Busch came in too fast, smoking the tires while slowing below the 55 mph pit road speed limit. Busch sped past Harvick's Chevy on the outside and suddenly turned right in front of him. Harvick hit Busch's Ford and spun it around.

Busch slid into his jackman, who was treated at the track hospital and released.

"The 97 (Busch) came flying through there will all four tires smoking and out of control," said a frustrated Harvick, who will start 31st on Sunday. "He was on the right side of me, and I guess he decided it was time for him to pit. Basically, he tore the right side off our car and knocked us out of the race.

"It's not the first stupid thing I've seen him do, and I've done some stupid things, too. It's all part of this sport."

Busch was penalized a lap for his pit road spin, finished just ahead of Harvick at the back of the 25-car field, and will start 37th.

In the opener, Gordon used a pit stop to get past Green.

Green started from the pole and was just ahead of Gordon at the front of the pack when the leaders slowed to pit on lap 32. Gordon braked hard and slipped past Green before they got to their pit stalls.

That's the way they came back onto the track, and that's the way it finished, giving Gordon a second-row start on Sunday, alongside Waltrip.

"We knew the pit stop would be everything," Gordon said. "I figured the only shot I had at getting by Jeff was by outbraking him going into the pits. The key was not to be speeding when I did it."

As Gordon shot past, Green bumped sides with Ricky Rudd's Ford.

"It's just tire marks," Green said. "If that's all the damage we get on Sunday, I think we'll be over in Victory Lane."

Green, who lost by 0.142-second -- also about two car-lengths -- was followed across the finish line by Rudd, two-time Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin, Jeff Burton, three-time Daytona winner Dale Jarrett and two-time 500 champion Jeff Gordon.

Both of the Gatorade Twin 125-mile races were run without a caution flag. Earnhardt averaged 180.845 mph and Gordon 181.159.

Thursday's races determined positions 3-30, with positions 31-36 reverting to speeds from Monday's time trials and the final seven spots going drivers based on last year's car-owner points.

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