- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. In the NASCAR garages, the refrain heading into the Daytona 500 goes something like this: "If Junior don't break or crash, ain't nobody gonna catch him."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has followed his late father as perhaps the best superspeedway racer in Winston Cup action, and few can dispute that he is the favorite going into today's race after sweeping his first three Speed Weeks events.
Junior already has won the Bud Shootout, his 125-mile qualifying race and Saturday's Busch Series race, all in the past eight days.
His father won seven Winston Cup championships and 76 races before his death here two years ago. He often said none of his accomplishments was more precious to him than winning the 1998 Daytona 500.
It took the elder Earnhardt 20 tries to win NASCAR's biggest event, although he came close several times. Junior doesn't plan to wait that long, yet he's somewhat amazed to be in position to do it on his fourth try.
"The strange thing about it for me, though, is that I have a chance to win it so early, and Dad came in for years and years," the 28-year-old said.
Earnhardt pointed out that his father didn't have a strong ride here for most of his early years and didn't become a real contender until his second stint of driving for Richard Childress began in 1984.
After that, Earnhardt Sr. became a dominant force at Daytona, winning preliminary races and the July Cup race multiple times. But he couldn't seem to make the magic happen in the race he wanted most.
In 1990, the Intimidator was leading until he ran over a piece of metal and blew a tire with half a lap to go. That gave the victory to Derrick Cope and broke Earnhardt's heart again.
"I was a teenager and I remember how hard it was and, I mean, it hurt," Junior said. "When he cut the tire in front of Cope that year, those were tough, tough times. It was awful. It just ruined the whole deal."
The heartache he saw and felt over his dad's near-misses, and the joy he experienced when Dale Sr. finally won, have made the season-opening race just as special to Junior.
"Going through that, I realize how big this race is," he said.
Being the man to beat isn't a role Junior relishes, though, and he's not so sure it's a good thing, especially knowing his father was in the same position three times and wasn't able to finish the job.
"I wasn't really in the right frame of mind Thursday after the 125s," Earnhardt said following yesterday's Busch race. "I was kind of upset because that just worsened the odds a little bit. But I guess they're so out of whack now that it really doesn't matter."
Junior is aware each year he doesn't win the 500, the pressure will build.
"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, because I'm going to have all this experience and go, 'Man, what the heck?' Hopefully, I'll win it, and I won't have to worry about that."
If he does win, it will take more than pure speed.
NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates at Daytona to keep the cars under 200 mph, an effort to make the race safer for drivers and spectators.
An unwanted side effect of the horsepower-sapping plates is bunching the field in huge packs, with cars drafting two- and three-wide at up to 190 mph. A spectacular multicar crash is virtually a given during races here and at Talladega Superspeedway, the only other track where the plates are used.
"All it takes is to lose your focus for a moment," said two-time Daytona 500 winner and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. "It's hard to hold your breath for three hours, but that's what it feels like."
NASCAR's solution to pack racing is a small fuel cell, forcing the cars to pit more often and, hopefully, stringing out the field. The tanks 13 gallons as opposed to the usual 22 were first used last fall at Talladega, and the results were mixed.
Thursday's twin 125-mile qualifying races were the first time the drivers got to see the effects of the smaller tank on Daytona's 2-mile oval. It was the first time in more than a decade that a pit stop was needed in the 50-lap races.
Jeff Green will start at the front of the 43-car field alongside Earnhardt, who won his qualifier. Green finished second to teammate Robby Gordon in his 125, losing the lead when Gordon outbraked him coming in for their pit stops.
"It's so much a different track than Talladega. Handling comes into play so much here," Green said. "It really pushes the front end off the corner and, if your car is handling, that singles cars out, too. It's going to get down to maybe 10 cars you have to race instead of 40."
If that scenario develops, it's likely the cars at the front will include Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip, as well as Richard Childress Racing drivers Green and Robby Gordon.
The elder Earnhardt won all but one of his championships while driving for Childress, and he and his car owner always put a particular emphasis on the plate races.
DEI was founded by the elder Earnhardt, who continued to drive for Childress until his death, and it has placed the same priority on the Daytona and Talladega events.
Earnhardt and Waltrip have combined for six wins in the last eight plate races, with Junior winning the 2001 July race at Daytona and the last three 500-milers at Talladega. Waltrip won the 2001 Daytona 500 and added a victory here in July 2002.
There's no guarantee, though, that those two teams, which also include RCR's Kevin Harvick and DEI's Steve Park, will dominate Sunday.
Tony Stewart, the 2002 Winston Cup champion, will begin defense of that title in a race in which he has failed to finish better than 17th in four tries. He was the favorite last year, but his engine blew up after two laps and he wound up last.
Other contenders in the big field are Jeff Gordon and other former Daytona winners Sterling Marlin, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott and Ward Burton, last year's winner.
The Roush Racing trio of Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth can't be overlooked either. Martin finished second to Stewart in points; Busch finished the season as the hottest driver, winning three of the last five races; and Kenseth led the 2002 series with five wins.
Then there are last year's rookie stars, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson, both of whom finished in the top six in points.
The lineup also includes Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd, winless here in 20 and 25 starts, respectively. Six rookies also dot the field, including Brazilian Indy-car star Christian Fittipaldi, 2002 Busch Series champion Greg Biffle, three-time truck series champion Jack Sprague, and Jamie McMurray, who ran a handful of races last year and won in his second start, the quickest victory in NASCAR history.
Wallace starts 38th, 30 positions lower than he thought he would. His team was fined $10,000 and his car disqualified from his qualifying race for an illegal carburetor.

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