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DAYTONA 500 Today at Daytona International Speedway,
10 a.m. PST, Channel 11

The Earnhardt Factor

Dale Jr. looms as favorite, but his late father's memory can be found in several others who have dominated racing recently

February 16, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There will be no black No. 3 Chevrolet in today's Daytona 500, but the imprint of the late Dale Earnhardt is all over NASCAR's Great American Race, opening event of the Winston Cup season.

* Jeff Green, whose first job as a driver was for Earnhardt and who now drives for Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt's old team, will start on the pole in the No. 30 Chevrolet.

* Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Intimidator's son, is driving for DEI, the team continued by Little E's stepmother after the tragic death of Earnhardt in the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. He starts on the front row in the red No. 8, alongside Green.

* Robby Gordon, a second RCR driver, will start on the inside of the second row, right behind teammate Green in the No. 31 Chevrolet.

* Michael Waltrip, hand-picked by Earnhardt to drive his No. 15 Chevrolet in 2001, won the Daytona 500 in that car and is still driving for DEI. He followed up his 500 win by also taking the Pepsi 400 the next year.

The quartet has dominated racing during Speed Weeks, Green winning the pole, Earnhardt Jr. winning the Budweiser Shootout and a twin 125 qualifying race and warming up for today by winning the Busch Grand National on Saturday.

Gordon won the other 125 race. Waltrip, who did not run in the Shootout, chased teammate Earnhardt across the line in his 125 qualifier. As close to total domination as two teams can have.

There will be 39 other drivers, including Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and defending 500 winner Ward Burton, but the focus will be on the Earnhardt four.

Earnhardt Jr., 28, in his fourth Daytona 500, is nearly everyone's favorite to win, but he is not sure what it means.

"This race means so much to me," he said. "The strange thing about it for me, though, is that I have a chance to win it so early and Dad came here for years and years before he won. He had a great car when he ran for [Rod] Osterlund [in 1979], but from there on out he really came down here with less of a chance to win.

"Once he got with Richard they started improving and improving and it got to where they could come down here and run great in SpeedWeeks, but just couldn't wrap up the 500. I remember as a kid or as a teenager, I remember how hard it was and, I mean, it hurt."

In 1990, Earnhardt was leading on the final lap when he cut a tire in the third turn, allowing Derrike Cope to come from behind and win.

"Now it's weird for me because I've got a chance to win it so early and don't know what to think about that. I don't know if I appreciate it or not. I'm probably going to look back 10 or 15 years from now and wish I had a chance to do it all over again if I don't win this race Sunday, knowing I had the chance to win in my fourth year in the sport.

"Hopefully, I'll win it and I won't have to worry about it."

Ricky Rudd, in the fastest Ford, says not to forget the third RCR car, driven by Kevin Harvick, the Bakersfield driver who was selected by Childress two years ago to take Earnhardt's spot on the team.

"I think there are two DEI and three Childress cars to beat, so I guess we probably need five cars to break down so we can win," said Rudd, who moved to the Wood Brothers team this season. "They've come up with some kind of a combination that works. Their cars are really racy."

Rudd has driven in 25 500s without a win, more than any other driver in today's race.

Harvick, who was the victim of a dumb move by Kurt Busch that knocked his car out of the race in their qualifying heat Thursday, will start 15th.

With the Chevy Monte Carlo, Dodge Intrepid, Ford Taurus and Pontiac Grand Prix all sheet-metal clones, the question asked along pit row is what makes the Chevys so dominant.

"I think it's just been a great effort, from everybody at RCR," Childress said of his team's success. "The engine guys, they never gave up. They were tearing brand new engines down. The fab shop, they just kept working on the cars and the body shop, it's just a huge team effort."

Then he paused, and said solemnly, "Dale, he was the man here for many, many years. I'll always give Dale Earnhardt all the credit. He's the man when it comes to Daytona and Talladega."

Young Earnhardt bristled when he heard of complaints about Chevrolet dominance.

"The guys that are complaining should be over there working on their race cars," he said. "I guarantee you if we build a Ford, a Pontiac, we can make it run just as fast as we make our Chevrolets run. It makes me angry that sometimes we get a disadvantage because we work harder. Our confidence is based on our effort.

"When we go out there and do something good or build a good race car that comes down here and tests fast or whatever, we get mandated for it. It's hard to understand and hard to swallow."

Rusty Wallace, who had the fastest Dodge in the field before his qualifying effort was disqualified for having an illegal carburetor, says he still has hopes despite starting 38th.

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