Earnhardt Jr. wins first of two qualifying races
Wallace and Vickers both advance to Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 2-for-2 in his Hendrick Motorsports debut, winning one of Thursday’s qualifying races and establishing himself as the favorite to win the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt led 26 of the 60 laps to score his second win of Speedweeks, provingNASCAR’s most popular driver is a perfect fit with the sport’s most dominant team. Earnhardt, who also won the exhibition Budweiser Shootout five days ago, was out front for much of the race but still needed a late pass of Ryan Newman to secure the win.
“I didn’t think I had (Newman) cleared, I don’t know if he lifted to let me have it ‘cause I might have wrecked the deal there,” Earnhardt said. “I come on in front of him, but it must have been inches. He had to lift a little bit, but he got a run on the inside of me there. That was pretty fun.”
Earnhardt, the 2004 Daytona 500 winner, will start on the second row of Sunday’s seasonopener. He’ll be searching for his first points victory in nearly two years.
“It’s a Cinderella story,” said KennyWallace, one of two drivers to race their way into the 500 in the first qualifier. “It looks like he’s going to sweep Speedweeks if he doesn’t break.”
The first qualifying race was a showdown between Red Bull Racing teammates Brian Vickers and AJ Allmendinger, who both raced their way into the 500 field. Vickers made it in with a last-lap pass of Joe Nemechek to finish 11th, securing his spot.
It was a comeback for Vickers, who was spun by Boris Said three laps into the race and had to make an unscheduled pit stop for a flat tire. Vickers, a one-time star at Hendrick Motorsports, struggled horribly through his first season with Red Bull when the team struggled to make races.
“Oh, it’s like I won the race,” Vickers said. “I think the last time I felt this good was when I won a race (at Talladega in 2006). I mean, the 50th running of the Daytona 500 is special, but just to start the year off right.”
Allmendinger failed to make the 500, finishing 13th in the qualifier. He too struggled to make races last season and was disappointed in not being able to put both Red Bull cars in the field.
Kenny Wallace earned the other spot that was up for grabs in the first qualifier, finishing eighth. Nemechek, his teammate at fledgling Furniture Row Racing, also earned a spot in the field as one of the fastest cars in time trials not already qualified for the 500.
Kurt Busch lost power in his Dodge about 10 laps into the race, and the failure had a huge effect on several drivers. Because the 2004 series champion gave his points earned from last season to new teammate Sam Hornish Jr. — a move that ensures Hornish a spot in the first five races of the season, Busch will make the Daytona 500 under the past champion’s provisional.
“We got some burned-up wires under the dash, so that’s not good,” Busch said. “We’ve got the champion’s provisional to fall back on, and so we’re not too worried about it.”
But it created a huge worry for three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, who had hoped the provisional still would be available for him just in case he failed to race his way into the field in the second qualifying race. Jarrett is retiring next month and could conceivably miss his final 500.
The provisional goes to the most recent former champion, and the order for awarding it is Busch, Jarrett and Bill Elliott.
Reed Sorenson followed a strong run in the Shootout with a second-place finish in the first qualifier, and was followed by Ryan Newman, Casey Mears and Carl Edwards.
But the race once again belonged to Earnhardt, who had to drive from the back of the field to win his race.
A rash of bad lifters in motors made by both Hendrick and several Toyota teams forced a flurry of engine changes Wednesday, and all the teams that made switches had to drop to the back of the field. That included Earnhardt and all three of his Hendrick teammates.
But it made no difference to Earnhardt, who scored his 12th victory in various series at Daytona.
“I’m real proud of my team, they built me a great car,” Earnhardt said. “The engine guys worked overnight to bring us the replacement motors down here. They’re great, as we see.”