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Waltrip Is Looking to End Pole Futility

Former Daytona 500 winner is hoping to earn top qualifying spot today, a position he has not held at the track in 20 years.

February 09, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Michael Waltrip won the 2001 Daytona 500, he ended one of the longest winless streaks in Winston Cup history at 463 races.

Now he wants to end what he says could be the longest drought between poles by any driver in NASCAR at a particular track by capturing the pole in today's front-row qualifying for the Feb. 16 Daytona 500.

"I sat on the pole here 20 years ago for the Goody's Dash, my first year at Daytona International Speedway, so I think it's about time I got my second one," said the popular driver of the No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Only the two front-row cars will qualify in today's time trials, with the remainder of the 43-car field determined largely by results from Thursday's Twin 125 qualifying heats or provisional points from last season.

"I know how to win the 500, I proved that, so now I want to win the pole -- and of course, the race again," Waltrip said. "The key to both is having a great car, and I think the car we have today is great.

"We are so fortunate to have such great cars. After we won Daytona, February 2001, NASCAR kept our car at Daytona USA."

When the impounded car was released after being displayed for a year, it was taken to the Dale Earnhardt Inc. museum in Mooresville, N.C., where it sits just as it did when Waltrip climbed out of the car, his helmet still hanging from its hook.

"Then we raced the remaining three [restrictor] plate races in 2001, plus the four plate races in 2002, including the Pepsi win [at Daytona] in July with the same car. We never wrecked it. We never had to start from zero again. 'Slugger' [crew chief Richard Labbe] kept tweaking it and tuning it, so when last year was over we knew what our baseline was. We took that car and put it aside.

"We took our new 2003 car and developed it slowly and precisely based on all of the tweaking Slugger did. There is no way that the 2002 car could be better than the one we will run tomorrow."

In the final round of practice Saturday, Waltrip's speed of 184.953 mph was second fastest to Joe Nemechek's 185.953. Waltrip's teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was third at 184.521 as Chevrolets held the top five spots on the speed sheets.

Nemechek said the key to qualifying may be in today's inspections.

"Everybody has got to go through the 'Room of Doom' [inspection], so I think we've got as good a shot as any to be close. The biggest thing is that they've got so many templates -- trying to make all the templates fit -- and all of ours fit when we went through the first time, so that was good."

Waltrip, younger brother of three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, explained the fastest way around Daytona's distinctive D-shaped 2.5-mile track:

"Staying on the white line is the way to go. There are big bumps exiting Turn 4 and a big dip in the middle of Turns 1 and 2. All those are significant factors when you have 43 cars in a bunch, but you can handle anything when you are driving by yourself at 184 mph."

Jimmie Johnson, a rookie from El Cajon, was a surprise pole winner last year. But Johnson proved it was no aberration by winning three races, four poles and a fifth-place finish in Winston Cup standings.

"Winning the pole last year was fantastic, but in some ways it also was a strange situation," Johnson said. "It is extremely hard coming down [here] for the first time and winning the pole when you're a rookie and it's the Super Bowl of motor sports and you do it in your first attempt in a Winston Cup car. It just blows you away."

Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, was not new to springing pole-day surprises. A year earlier, in his second race as a crew chief, he put Stacy Compton on the outside pole in a Dodge, which was making its first appearance in Winston Cup racing after a 16-year absence.

"Everything just has to be perfect to get the Daytona 500 pole," said Kraus. "The sun plays a factor, the wind plays a factor, oil temperature plays a factor -- there are so many variables."

Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and two-time 500 winner who plucked Johnson from the Busch series two years ago, believes a new Chevrolet Monte Carlo body style will help the team's chances.

"We had a lot of trouble with the old Monte Carlo when it first came out because it had so much rear downforce and so little front downforce," he said. "We struggled quite a bit but we massaged it, worked with it and moved the bodies around. NASCAR helped us in some areas, too.

"However, this new Monte Carlo definitely has a much better balance from the beginning. I'm really excited. We've had a great off-season. The team carried some momentum from the end of last year in knowing we finished fourth and fifth in points. I think we're a championship-caliber team this year."

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