- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When the green flag drops to start Sunday’s Daytona 500, the usual suspects — drivers from Hendrick and Gibbs, Childress and Roush — will be at or near the front.

In yesterday’s two 150-mile qualifying races, Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick Motorsports and Denny Hamlin from Joe Gibbs Racing won to secure spots in the second row. But deeper in the field, there were stories that made for another feel good Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.

Racing their way into the 500 were: Kenny Wallace, driving on a one-race deal; Brian Vickers, who was last after four laps following a spin out; John Andretti, whose car hadn’t even been to the wind tunnel; and Dale Jarrett, a three-time 500 champion making his first Daytona appearance.

“I wish I would have put money on me in Vegas to make this race,” said Andretti, the most unlikely of the transfer drivers. “I didn’t expect this.”

The drivers needed good finishes because they weren’t in the top 35 of last year’s owner points. In the first race, Wallace was eighth and Vickers 11th; Andretti and Jarrett were ninth and 10th, respectively, in the second race.

Earnhardt and Hamlin will start in the second row behind Jimmie Johnson and Michael Waltrip, who were the fastest qualifiers last weekend.

Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy continues to rule Speedweeks — he won the Budweiser Shootout last Saturday.

“We’ve won some races down here so we got to be in there if a group is [considered the favorite],” he said.

Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota gave the manufacturer its first win of any kind since joining the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year. Gibbs’ cars were first, second and 11th in the second qualifier.

Hamlin, with Jeff Gordon hugging his back bumper, blew by teammate Tony Stewart during a green-white-checker finish.

“I was definitely a guy that liked the switch to Toyota because they had a lot of resources we didn’t have with 400-plus employees at Joe Gibbs Racing,” Hamlin said. “To give them their first win so early in the season is a proud moment.”

Among those who were unable to qualify were Boris Said, rookies Patrick Carpentier and Jacques Villeneuve and Bill Elliott. Elliott’s absence means Wood Brothers Racing had competed in 47 of the first 49 Daytona 500 races.

Wallace will appear in the 500 for a race team that fired him last season. His race was boring compared to the adversity Vickers overcame.

Vickers’ problems started on lap 4 when he was bumped by Said coming out of turn 2 and spun down the backstretch. He fell to last when he had to replace four flat-spotted tires.

“That was more than excitement than we needed,” he said.

But the trouble kept coming. Vickers pitted out of sequence on lap 30 when he felt the right rear getting loose and again changed four tires.

“That was nerve-wracking — luckily the caution didn’t come out,” he said.

Finally, with four laps remaining, Vickers’ two right-side tires were changed.

“It feels like a win,” he said. “We want to get the year started off right and with some momentum. Running in the Daytona 500 is a way to do that.”

Jarrett will retire after the season’s first five races and his resume will include a 20th appearance in the 500. He got drafting help from teammate Waltrip.

“The first part of the race was to hang out and see what was going to transpire,” Jarrett said. “I saw a lot of cars that looked out of shape in front of me, so I found a reasonably comfortable spot. The car was good through the corners, and it needed a push to make that extra pass. Michael gave that to me.”

One of Andretti’s two Cup wins came at the Daytona summer race in 1997. He gained four positions on the race’s final four laps.

“I knew the whole time who I had to pass and who held the transfer spots,” he said.

The big theme after the races was tire wear. Cars began sliding up the track late in a fuel run, forcing teams to pit earlier than they hoped. Drivers hope three days of rubber laid down on the track and no rain will allow cars to stick during the 500.

“Everybody is pretty concerned about it,” Vickers said. “We have smaller fuel cells, and we can’t make it through a full run without the tire falling apart. More rubber on the track with practices and the truck and [Nationwide] races should help.”

Postcard from Daytona Beach, Fla.

Sir Scribble will go an entire calendar year without buying a reporter’s notebook after spending three days at the Daytona International Speedway.

Every time we venture out to the garage area for an interview or to the pits to watch practice, there is something waiting for us upon returning to the media center.

The rundown: Notebooks from Michigan International Speedway, ESPN, Sprint, Ford, Nicorette gum. Folders from Ford, DuPont, Toyota, Chevy, Office Depot and Amp Energy Drink. A Kevin Harvick bobble head doll. A bag of M&Ms;, also from the Office Depot folks.

There are only two things Sir Scribble can’t find at Daytona:

1. Somebody who isn’t at least a partial Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan.

Those ugly-as-all-get-out white racing jackets with Earnhardt’s sponsors (Amp and the National Guard) are all over the infield. And his taking the lead in the first qualifying race brought a standing ovation from the grandstand.

2. Napkins.

Seriously. The only napkins available anywhere are in the plastic fork-knife contraption.

Before the races, Sir Scribble interviewed Hendrick Motorsports engineer (and Virginia Tech grad) Darian Grubb in Earnhardt’s transporter. Afterward, Grubb showed Scrib around the hauler, which houses all of the equipment for the long trips on the highway. The attention to details is quite remarkable.

What’s also remarkable is the number of “official” NASCAR sponsors. The official count is 57.

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