DAYTONA 500 Dale Jr. to battle for pole
It's the only thing he hasn't won at the famed Florida speedway.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has established himself as a favorite any time he takes to the track at Daytona International Speedway.
What he doesn't have on his racing resume is a Daytona 500 pole -- yet.
Earnhardt, who still loves this track despite the painful memories it brings to mind, is considered one of the strong favorites to get that pole today when the two front-row positions for the race Feb. 16 are determined.
Earnhardt led the first Winston Cup practice on Saturday with a lap of 184.521 mph. Several hours later, he improved to 184.759, but finished third on the day behind Joe Nemechek's 185.189 and Michael Waltrip's 184.953.
Earnhardt didn't mind being third in practice.
"The car is good," he said. "I don't want to say too much and jinx us."
Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's biggest and fastest tracks, are the only places where carburetor restrictor plates are required.
The steel plates, with tiny holes drilled in them, limit the amount of air mixing with the gasoline, thereby sapping horsepower. As NASCAR intended, that keeps the cars under 200 mph on the big tracks.
Earnhardt and Waltrip, teammates at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by the late Dale Earnhardt, have become the drivers to beat at Daytona and Talladega since the beginning of the 2001 season.
Two years ago, Junior's famous father was killed in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
At the moment Dale Sr. was hitting the fourth-turn wall, Little E was following Waltrip across the finish line for what would have been a joyous 1-2 finish for DEI Chevrolets under other circumstances.
To that point, it was Junior's best finish on NASCAR's most famous track. Since then, Waltrip and Earnhardt have combined to win six of the last eight plate races. That includes a victory by Earnhardt in the 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona and wins in his last three Talladega starts.
Waltrip added a victory in the 2002 Pepsi 400, with Earnhardt finishing second.
Earnhardt's father openly disliked plate racing, but he was acknowledged as the master at Daytona and Talladega. Junior has inherited the knack but not the distaste.
"I like the tracks," he said. "I like the speed. I like racing in the close packs, bumper to bumper.
"It's a little bit different than what we normally do throughout the year. I don't feel like I get enough of it."
Nobody will be surprised if the teammates sweep the front row.
"Our cars are capable of doing that," Waltrip said. "Even if we don't, though, they'll have to think about us in the 500."
Likes favorite role
Waltrip, who had never won until he ran his first race with DEI in 2001, loves being a favorite.
"I was so confident about running the 2001 Daytona 500," he said. "No one really thought much about our chances, except us."
Nemechek, starting his first full season in the No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, isn't sure he is really a pole contender.
"Everybody has got to go through the 'Room of Doom,' " Nemechek said, referring to NASCAR's inspection area. "So I think we've got as good a shot as any to be close.
"A top 10 would be great. But, just to have a shot at the pole is going to be pretty cool."
The top five speeds were turned in Saturday by Chevys.