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Junior's driving scared

After another easy win at Daytona, in a 125-miler, he's afraid odds are against his winning Sunday's 500.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- The victories are starting to stack up for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway. So, too, are the odds.

Against him.

Earnhardt is trying to become the first driver to sweep the three major Winston Cup races held at Daytona every February. Thursday, he added a 125-mile qualifying race to his Bud Shootout victory Saturday. Now he needs the finale -- some little race called the Daytona 500.

"It's almost a little overwhelming to come down here and do so well," said Earnhardt, driver of the No.8 Chevrolet. "It seems like to me every time we do something good it stacks the odds against us even worse to win the 500."

Robby Gordon won the first of the 50-lap qualifying races, beating Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Green off pit road after a green-flag stop to lead the final 17 laps.

The qualifying races are key to setting the 43-car field for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.

Green and Earnhardt secured front-row starting spots by topping the speed chart Monday in qualifying. Coming from nowhere, Green nipped Earnhardt by 0.58 seconds for the pole.

The top 14 finishers from each qualifying race -- excluding Green and Earnhardt -- transferred to starting positions 3-30. The next six spots went to drivers based on qualifying speeds, the final seven as provisionals based on 2002 points. Mike Skinner in the No.4 Pontiac got the final spot.

Most notable among the seven drivers who failed to make the field were a pair of owner-drivers: series regular Brett Bodine and 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrick Cope.

The strong performances by the cars from RCR and Dale Earnhardt Inc. sets up a competition between the team for which the late Dale Earnhardt drove and the team he founded. Earnhardt won six of his seven points championships and the 1998 Daytona 500 driving the black No.3 for Childress.

"I don't know if it's going to come down to RCR versus DEI," said Gordon, driver of the No.31 Chevrolet. "I heard Junior say that he hopes he can sweep this deal, and my goal is that he doesn't."

Though Earnhardt is yet to race against RCR's Green or Gordon this week, his clearly has been the strongest car. He came from last place in a 19-car field to win the 70-lap Bud Shootout, needing just 15 laps to move to the front. He led all but 12 laps Thursday, and might have led all but two had he not made the mistake of giving Kevin Harvick room to pass on Lap 8.

With drivers forced by the use of 13.5-gallon fuel cells to make at least one pit stop, the race took a bizarre twist. After a gas-and-go stop on Lap 31, Earnhardt led second-place Michael Waltrip, his DEI teammate, by several car lengths, with the rest of the field nearly a hale-mile behind. Waltrip caught up to Earnhardt after 10 laps, the rest soon after, but there was no passing him.

"It was fun there at the end, playing the game and trying to figure out how to get to him," said Waltrip, who finished second in the No.15 Chevrolet. "But he was too strong."

While Junior is the favorite, winning a qualifying race in no way guarantees a 500 victory. If it did, his father would have won NASCAR's premier race 12 times before dying in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Rather, the 500 became a source of frustration for the perennial race-day favorite. Earnhardt cut a tire while leading on the last lap in 1990 and hit a sea gull while leading in 1993 before finally winning in 1998 -- on his 20th try.

"They could come down here and run great in Speedweeks, but just couldn't wrap up the 500," said Earnhardt Jr., in his fourth Winston Cup season at age 28. "As a teenager, I remember how hard it was. It hurt. Those were tough, tough times. Going through that, I realize how big this race is.

"But it's weird for me because I have a chance to win it so early. I don't know what to think about that. It's like something you earn, a chance to win this race.

"I'm probably going to probably look back 10 or 15 years from now and wish I had the chance to do it all over again if I don't win this race. I'm going to have all this experience and go, 'What the heck?' Hopefully, I'll win and I won't have to worry about that."

Earnhardt, who has won four of the past six races at Daytona and Talladega, superspeedways where restrictor plates are used to limit speeds, was a 500 favorite last year until he ran over debris. His day turned into a wild ride that included a reconstructed nose piece and a spin through the tri-oval grass with no brakes.

"It was our race to lose last year, and we lost it," he said. "Everybody puts so much emphasis on this race and talks about being the favorite to win. It's not easy to win it. You're singling out one event that you run maybe 20 or 30 times in your career. What are the chances that you're going to win with everything that can happen in 500 miles?"

Apparently, getting worse by the victory.

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