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By KEVIN KELLY and Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001
ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- They were friends, but not fishing buddies.
Still, Jeff Gordon had a tremendous respect for the man who once toasted him at a Winston Cup awards banquet with a glass of milk.
In honor of Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a last-lap crash during the Daytona 500 Sunday, Gordon donned a black hat with the No. 3 and "The Intimidator" stitched on the back after he won the pole for the Dura-Lube 400 on Saturday at North Carolina Speedway.
"I put this No. 3 hat on to let everybody know we're thinking of Dale," said Gordon, who has 34 career poles. "I want to dedicate this pole to him. It's a great opportunity to let everyone know how much I respected him and how much we're going to miss him."
Gordon's 156.455 mph lap was 0.009 seconds faster than Steve Park.
Park, who drives for Dale Earnhardt Inc., will start second in the No. 1 Chevrolet, followed by Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte.
"We've had a long week," Park said. "I'm tired. I've never done so little and have been so tired in my whole life. It's been an emotionally draining week. ... Getting back in the race car, I think, is the first step in the healing process that we're all going to go through."
Dodge, which swept the top two spots in the Daytona 500, did not have a car in the top 10. Ward Burton (11th) and Bill Elliott (14th) were the only Dodge drivers in the top 15.
NOT CONVINCED: Gordon and Rusty Wallace implied Saturday there may be more behind the broken left lap belt found in Earnhardt's car after the driver's fatal crash.
Investigators discovered the lap belt, made by Simpson Performance Products, on the floorboard after Earnhardt was pulled from the car.
"There was a problem with the seat belt," Wallace said. "I think there was probably a bigger problem with the way it maybe was in the car or maybe the way Dale wanted it."
NASCAR requires lap belts, which are part of a safety-belt system that secures drivers to their seats, be bolted onto each side of the roll cage. The position of the belts often is determined by driver comfort.
"I would find it very hard to believe that there's something wrong with the seat belt." Gordon said. "I've never seen that happen before. I can hear about it all day long, but I'd like to see it."
MORE ON BELTS: The New York Daily News reported that Earnhardt altered the seat belt in his car during the Daytona 500. NASCAR spokesman John Griffin called that report speculation.
CONTINUED SUCCESS: Michael Waltrip, who won the Daytona 500 in a car owned by Earnhardt, rebounded from an early-morning mistake to grab a top-10 starting spot today.
Waltrip hit the outside wall in Turn4 during practice, then qualified seventh in his No. 15 Chevrolet.
"I know how good it felt to win that race last week, but you don't know how good that just felt," Waltrip said. "I lost sight of the goal this morning and wrecked. I prayed and prayed that it would work out because making this race was just huge for me."
NEW RULES, PLEASE: Several drivers said they hope NASCAR makes a change to its aerodynamic package before future races at Daytona and Talladega.
New rules, which increased the size of the holes in restrictor plates and added a roof strip, slow cars on the circuit's fastest tracks. There were 49 lead changes among 21 drivers last fall at Talladega and again last weekend at Daytona, where there was a 19-car pileup.
"(The rules) need to be altered," Wallace said. "We don't need to put that big of a show on."
WEATHER: The forecast calls for a 70 percent chance of rain in Rockingham today, down to 30 percent at night -- which wouldn't help because the speedway has no lights.