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Waltrip and Earnhardt Up Front at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are running up front at Daytona. Kevin Harvick is stirring up trouble. Sound familiar?

Yep, the new NASCAR season has many of the same ol' themes _ and we're still a couple of days away from the Daytona 500.

Start with Waltrip and Earnhardt, who have dominated Daytona for Dale Earnhardt Inc. They were terrible in qualifying (Waltrip was 33rd, Earnhardt 39th) and lackluster in practice. But once DEI got into racing mode, it was business as usual.

Waltrip (a two-time Daytona 500 winner) edged out his teammate (who won the race last year) in the first of two 150-mile qualifying races Thursday.

``I swear on the bible that we haven't been sandbagging,'' Earnhardt said, failing to convince all those drivers who watched DEI's 1-2 finish.

Tony Stewart won the second 150-miler, but only after he dodged a crash that took out many of the top contenders. Not surprisingly, Harvick was right in the middle of things.

The volatile driver, who served a one-race suspension for his antics in 2002, bumped race leader Jimmie Johnson from behind coming through the second turn.

The resulting melee knocked out Johnson, left Harvick's car in a heap and also took out Mark Martin, Joe Nemechek and Rusty Wallace.

Afterward, Nemechek threw a water bottle at Harvick as he emerged from the infield care center. Johnson called on Harvick to be fired by his team or at least fined by NASCAR.

``He just drives stupid,'' Nemechek said. ``He'll get it back. It was totally uncalled for what happened out there.''

NASCAR officials moved quickly to diffuse the situation. They summoned Harvick and Johnson, along with their owners and crew chiefs, to an infield summit meeting. Harvick admitted he was at fault and shook hands with Johnson. The two drivers agreed to meet Thursday night at a secret location _ with no one else around _ to smooth out a feud that dates to last season.

``We told them they could either work it out among themselves,'' NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said, ``or we'd work it out for them.''

The wreck Thursday will go down as a ``racing incident,'' Hunter said. But any more problems between the drivers will lead to stiff fines _ maybe even suspensions.

No such problems for Waltrip and Earnhardt, who have combined to win three of the last four Daytona 500s. Waltrip passed Junior on the final straightaway and held off the No. 8 car by 0.030 seconds, about half a car length.

``We certainly caught a lot of flak over the last week about the way our cars qualified,'' Waltrip said. ``This silenced it.''

Earnhardt knows DEI's dominance at the restrictor-plate tracks can't last forever. But the team is still running ahead of the pack.

``It just seems to go in cycles,'' Earnhardt said. ``Everybody is working hard to catch us, and eventually they will.''

Jeff Gordon, a two-time Daytona winner who finished seventh in the first race, isn't so sure about that.

``They've never qualified good. They've always been mediocre in practice,'' he said. ``I'd like to know what it is that they got, because they obviously know how to sandbag well.''

Mike Skinner, a regular in NASCAR's truck series, led the 150 after the third caution flag of the race. He appeared on the way to victory until the DEI cars ganged up on him at the end.

Skinner wound up third, followed by Ryan Newman, Ricky Rudd, defending Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch and Gordon.

In the second race, Stewart held off Jeff Burton for the win, crossing the finish line about two car-lengths in front.

Kevin Lepage finished third in the second race, earning a starting spot in the field, as did fourth-place finisher Martin Truex Jr., the third DEI car.

A rule change this year guaranteed the top 35 teams in car owner points starting spots Sunday. Four more drivers made it on speed, and the final four positions were up for grabs Thursday.

Making it in on qualifying speed were Jason Leffler, Boris Said, John Andretti and Mike Wallace, while Skinner, Kenny Wallace, Truex and Lepage made it in the 150s.

Among those who didn't make the 43-car field: Robby Gordon, a seven-time Daytona veteran fielding his own team this year.

Kerry Earnhardt, Dale's older half-brother, missed the cut, too, when he was passed in the final yards by Kenny Wallace.

But Kerry bounced back in the evening to earn his first career pole, posting the fastest qualifying speed for Friday night's truck race.

``This is great,'' the lesser-known Earnhardt said. ``It was a bummer not to make the 500. But my philosophy has always been: If it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be. When the time is right, it will happen.''
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