Junior looking strong at Daytona _ again

Friday, February 13th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Jr. can't celebrate just yet.

If anyone should know how little it means to win a qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway, it's Junior.

Earnhardt won his second straight 125-miler for the Daytona 500. Impressive, yes, but still 10 fewer qualifying wins than his father had on NASCAR's most famous track.

Then again, the Intimidator didn't win the 500 until his 20th try.

His son wants one now.

``I don't want to have to keep on coming close, coming close and losing it,'' Earnhardt said after his victory Thursday. ``It was hard on my dad. It was even hard on us kids, wanting him to win and not knowing when it would happen.

``I don't want be here 20 years later and coming so close to winning that I can't stand it.''

He's clearly the driver to beat in Sunday's Great American Race _ a label his late father often carried. The elder Earnhardt finally won in 1998.

Junior was just oozing with confidence after beating two-time 500 winner Michael Waltrip in the first of the twin 125-mile qualifying races. The teammates didn't even work together, sparking some spirited good ol' boys-style debate between Waltrip and Earnhardt's crew chief.

Not that it mattered.

``When I put my car out front, it's a beast,'' Earnhardt said.

Elliott Sadler won the second 125, showing the strength of the redesigned Ford that already had claimed the front row for Sunday's race.

Sadler, who will start alongside pole winner Greg Biffle, knows all eyes will be on Earnhardt's No. 8 Chevrolet when the green flag waves.

``Everyone is picking him,'' Sadler said. ``That's OK. I don't mind being the underdog.''

Winning his first race of any kind at Daytona, Sadler gave Robert Yates Racing its second victory in less than a week. Dale Jarrett won the Bud Shootout last Saturday night.

``Everyone keeps forgetting that Robert Yates Racing has been in Victory Lane more than anyone else this week,'' Sadler said.

Earnhardt won without any drafting help from Waltrip, his teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc. While the drivers often work together at Daytona, Junior took the lead from Waltrip on lap 37, pulled far ahead and stayed out front the rest of the way.

Tony Eury Sr., Earnhardt's crew chief, complained that Waltrip tried to do his own thing before fading to fourth.

``It seems like our teammate don't want to be our teammate no more, so we dumped him,'' Eury said.

But both drivers insisted there won't be any hard feelings in the race, which has been won two of the last three years by Waltrip.

Just to be sure, DEI chief Richie Gilmore stepped in to restore the peace.

``Everyone will go home tonight, get a beer and we'll be all right,'' he said.

Earnhardt won for the seventh time at Daytona, though he's never taken the checkered flag in the biggest race of all. His father won a record 34 times at Daytona but only once in the 500 before being killed in a last-lap crash in the event in 2001.

Junior was a favorite each of the last three years, but finished second to Waltrip in 2001, 29th in 2002 and 36th in last year's rain-shortened race after losing ground to an electrical problem.

So, overconfidence shouldn't be a problem.

``The only thing I'm excited about is that I just got one step closer to winning more races than my daddy ever did here,'' Junior said.

Earnhardt, who earned the third spot on the 43-car grid for the Nextel Cup opener, got a brief challenge from Tony Stewart at the end of the 50-lap race but easily held on to win by 0.245-seconds _ about three car-lengths.

``He was by far the class of the field,'' Stewart said.

Sadler won his race by an even-larger margin, so he won't be intimidated by the Intimidator's son.

``I out-qualified him, and I won my race, too,'' said Sadler, savoring a five-length victory over Sterling Marlin.

But the DEI drivers usually dominate at Daytona and Talladega, where NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates to reduce speeds on the big tracks. Waltrip and Earnhardt have won eight of the last 10 plate races, including three of four last year.

The twin 125s determined starting positions 3 through 30, with the rest of the lineup filled from last Sunday's qualifying and last year's car-owner points.

Actually, there wasn't much suspense.

The only yellow flag of the day was brought out when the right front tire on rookie Scott Riggs' car blew, bouncing him off the wall. He was OK.

Only two drivers _ Andy Hillenburg and Kirk Shelmerdine _ were sent home. NASCAR officials put Mike Skinner at the back just to make it a complete field.

Of course, come Sunday, all eyes will be on those starting up front _ especially Earnhardt.

``I just like having a fast car,'' Junior said. ``The easier my job is, the better.''