- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson is the nominal favorite in today’s Daytona 500. Or maybe the smart money will be on Dale Earnhardt Jr., or perhaps Michael Waltrip, who will assure you it’s a waste of money to bet on anybody but him.

What about Kurt Busch? The 26-year-old is the reigning NASCAR champion but instead of being a marked man and the prime focus of media attention, he has been seemingly nonexistent during Speedweeks — posting decent but not spectacular times while letting others stir up controversy.

The sold-out Great American Race, which kicks off the 36-event NASCAR campaign, will be run this afternoon with no clear-cut favorite. Dale Jarrett won the pole with a speed of 188.312 but has reverted to last year’s form every time he has been on the track during the past week, running a quick opening lap and then fading to the rear even quicker.

In fact, this NASCAR season begins with no major changes, unlike last season when the racing organization revamped the way championships are won. Previously, elimination came only when the math made it impossible for you to win. Now the top 10 drivers in the points race after 26 events battle among themselves over the final 10 events for the championship.

The new format has not met with universal approval. Many drivers are openly hostile to the formula, saying it relegates three-quarters of the field to also-ran status before events start. The revised title run was instituted in an attempt to drum up more interest during a phase of the season when NASCAR has had to battle four major pro sports and college football for sports fans’ attention.

Busch, however, has no complaints. He captured his first championship by a scant eight points over Johnson and just 16 over Jeff Gordon. Mark Martin was a distant fourth.

Busch starts on the inside of Row 7 today after posting the eighth-best qualifying speed, 187.699. His practice times Friday and Saturday were both better than his qualifying time, and he finished sixth in one of the Twin 150s Thursday.

“You’ve got to make your car turn,” he said after practice, offering a possible reason why his speed hasn’t been up there with some others. “It’s the sacrifice of speed to gain the car’s cornering ability. You’ve got to be able to turn and turn underneath people coming out of the corner exit.”

Earnhardt is the defending 500 champion but his car ran like a sick and aging nag earlier. He complained about the car not being fast enough to keep up with the competition.

Suddenly on Thursday, everything came together. He finished second in his half of the Twins, then posted a lap of nearly 190.5 on Friday, followed by a 190.4 yesterday.

As he ran well, so did Waltrip, his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate and a 500 winner twice in the past four years. And when Waltrip runs well, the words tumble out even faster.

“We’re back,” Waltrip exclaimed yesterday, glaring in faux anger at writers who had written off the DEI team earlier. “The cars are running well, and that’s a great feeling after we got off to a slow start in Speedweeks. I think we’ll be good [today]. Dale Jr.’s car is really fast. My car is very, very fast.”

Waltrip said he was confident but admitted his team was concerned.

“You’re always worried if you’re qualifying in the 30s [33rd],” the driver said. “Obviously, I’m pretty realistic ” that’s not a good sign. But I really felt confident we would be OK Wednesday and we were. Thursday was a great day for our whole team. Now we’re really confident and that’s the way life goes, up and down.”

Where would his primary competition come from? “The other [42] guys, they’re really persistent,” he cracked.

Martin, 46, might be the sentimental favorite, both in the stands and along pit road. He is retiring after the season and felt this was his best chance to win a race he has never come close to winning; his best finish was fifth in 1989.

But in the second of the Twins Thursday, his car was among those collected in an accident that started when Kevin Harvick bumped Johnson from behind at 145 mph and six of the seven cars involved were destroyed.

Martin said his backup car was no match, so his crew started major surgery to try to make the crumpled No. 6 look like a Ford again.

“I had 100 percent confidence in the team,” Martin said yesterday after putting up the 11th best time in practice. “They said they were going to fix it, we didn’t need to practice. If they couldn’t fix it, all the practice in the world wasn’t going to help us win. This is a good thing.

“I think it’s where it was right now. I don’t know how much better you can make it.”

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