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Speed Weeks '04 at Daytona

Junior, in huff, pulls off a win

Says Waltrip "broke script" at Daytona; Sadler wins second qualifier.

By BRANT JAMES
Published February 13, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH - Things are not always rosy at Dale Earnhardt Inc. But things seemed especially unrosy Thursday, even at a place where teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip have had the most to enjoy together.

Earnhardt and crew chief Tony Eury Sr. were critical of what they considered selfish moves by Waltrip during the first of two 125-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500, so Earnhardt took it upon himself to pass his teammate and win the nonpoints race on the merits of his uncatchable car.

In the other qualifier, Elliott Sadler, who would have started second Sunday no matter where he finished because of his pole-qualifying effort, won to make a strong Speedweeks for his Robert Yates Racing team even stronger.

Waltrip elected early in the race not to help Earnhardt along the high line of the track and instead went for the lead down low, a move Earnhardt said "broke the script." So with 13 laps left, Earnhardt found a seam on a restart and shot past race leader Waltrip to take the lead permanently.

"He's got a team back at the shop just like I do - not to help people, but to go win, just like I do," Earnhardt said. "When it came time, I decided to pass Michael if I could. And I got an opportunity. I got a run. There was a hole. I went under him and made a good pass on him.

"I wasn't happy about him leaving me by myself, but I know he wasn't happy I went to pass him."

Waltrip, who fell out of the draft but eventually worked his way back to fourth, deflected the issue.

"Junior and I do a nice job on the track," Waltrip said. "Those cats in the pits on the 8, you have to hear it with a grain of salt with the stuff they come up with."

Together, Earnhardt and Waltrip have combined to win nine of the last 11 points races at restrictor-plate tracks, including five straight at Talladega. Waltrip's wins last year at Talladega and in the Daytona 500 came with drafting help from Earnhardt.

The question is, do the partners that have dictated race strategy at Daytona for so long become free agents? And if they do, who benefits? Sadler thinks it could be him. With his win, RYR has two wins in three events this week, including Dale Jarrett's victory Saturday in the Bud Shootout.

"I hope I'm the favorite," Sadler said. "But we know if we want to win, we need to beat the 8 car. We're tired of hearing about DEI here, yes, but that's because we want to win too.

"Are we catching up? Yes. Are we there yet? No, we are not."

Earnhardt's decisive pass for the lead was hardly dramatic, but it was decidely more eventful than anything in the second race. A warm track surface caused the new, softer tires to wear quickly and reduce handling. But both events were restrictor-plate racing as usual in the later stages, with a strong leader with clean air on the nose of his car holding off the field.

Tony Stewart made a move with seven laps left when he appeared to nudge Jamie McMurray's No. 42 Dodge out of the way and assumed second place. Stewart was able to make runs on Turn 2 but could not get in position to pass Sadler.

"We didn't have a second-place car here today, but we made it up there," Stewart said. "We actually have to drive these cars here now rather than just drive them around like we have in the past. The good drivers are going to get to the front."

But no one was going to pass Earnhardt, Stewart said.

"The 8 car was the class of the field today," he said. "No one was going to catch him today."

Jeff Gordon rammed Kasey Kahne on pit road and suffered front-end damage when the rookie braked hard trying to avoid Dave Blaney. In finishing 21st, Gordon used a provisional to get into Sunday's race for just the second time in his 13-year career.

[Last modified February 13, 2004, 01:45:34]


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