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Keep an eye on DEI teammates

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, teammates at Dale Earnhardt Inc., have a legitimate chance to start side by side in the front row for the Daytona 500.

"Our cars are capable of doing that," said Waltrip, winner of the 2001 Daytona 500. "Even if we don't, though, they'll have to think about us in the 500."

Earnhardt and Waltrip, who have combined to win six of the past eight restrictor-plate races, were among the fastest Saturday when Winston Cup drivers practiced for the first time.

Time trials today in which drivers will take the faster of two laps around the 2.5-mile track will set the front row for the season-opening Daytona 500. The rest of the 43-car field will be determined after Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races.

Fifty-one cars are entered.

Earnhardt's No. 8 Chevrolet was fastest in morning practice at 184.521 mph, Waltrip's No. 15 Chevrolet next at 184.313. In the afternoon, Waltrip was second and Earnhardt third.

"The car is good," Earnhardt said. "I don't want to say too much and jinx it."

A CHALLENGER: Joe Nemechek made a statement late in the afternoon practice by putting his No. 25 Chevrolet atop the speed chart at 185.189 mph. Nemechek, whose qualifying prowess earned him the nickname Front Row Joe, hopes to challenge the DEI drivers.

"I think we're pretty good," said Nemechek, a Lakeland native. "You just never know until it's time to go out and show everything you have. A top 10 would be great, but just to have a shot at the pole is going to be pretty cool."

HE'S A HIT: Nineteen-year-old Chase Montgomery won the ARCA opener for the first victory of his career. It came just hours after Montgomery announced he will run a partial Busch Grand National schedule this season for owner Alice Cooper.

Yes, that Alice Cooper.

The rock star joined Montgomery in Victory Lane.

"I'm retiring," said Cooper, smiling. "I want to be undefeated. I was telling him it's like getting your first No. 1 record, the feeling is unbelievable."

Montgomery held off Bob Strait by .176 seconds in a four-lap shootout after the seventh caution of the 80-lap race. Last year, Montgomery became the youngest pole-winner in Daytona history when he started the ARCA race from the first position.

Other notable finishes: former CART driver Christian Fittipaldi, who is driving a combined ARCA, BGN and Winston Cup schedule for Petty Enterprises, was 10th; Jason Jarrett, son of 1999 Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett, was 20th; and Deborah Renshaw, competing for the first time since being seriously injured in October in a crash at Lowe's Motor Speedway that killed driver Eric Martin, was 24th, one lap down.

BACKWARD DASH: Johnny Chapman, pole-sitter for today's Goody's Dash 150, had engine trouble in practice. The engine change forces him to drop to the rear of the field for the start.

WHAT PRESSURE?: Tim Raines was the fastest among rookies in Winston Cup practice, 10th in the afternoon practice at 183.460 mph in the No. 74 Chevrolet. His first-year team has no owner points to fall back on in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 field, so today's qualifying run will be critical.

"There's no doubt that we're underdogs, we're long shots, whatever you want to call it," Raines said.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I won at Monopoly once." -- Montgomery, whose ARCA win was the first of any kind in his career.

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