Earnhardt's quest stalled by showers

Posted: Monday, February 10, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't get the chance to give his Winston Cup competitors another reason to consider him the favorite in the Daytona 500.

Rain forced the postponement of Sunday's pole qualifying for the Feb. 16 race one day.

NASCAR also said second-round time trials, originally set for Monday, will not be held. The lineups for Thursday's Twin 125-mile qualifying races will also be determined on Monday.

Earnhardt Jr., coming off an impressive victory Saturday night in the non-points Budweiser Shootout -- the first NASCAR event of the new season -- is likely to be the favorite any time his powerful red No. 8 Chevrolet takes to the Daytona International Speedway oval in the coming week.

That would have delighted his late father, who loved to psyche out other drivers and was known as The Intimidator. For Little E, being ''The Man'' is a little embarrassing.

''I don't think that is really my style,'' Earnhardt Jr. said after powering past four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and leading the last five laps of the Shootout. ''I don't like being the favorite. I like being the surprise.

''I think it's a whole lot more fun when you really come out and surprise people, because that is what I've been used to all my life.''

Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Inc., teammate Michael Waltrip have won six of the last eight races at Daytona and Talladega -- NASCAR biggest and fastest tracks -- but Waltrip has the only Daytona 500 win between them.

That victory came two years ago in the race in which seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed.

Waltrip is considered one of a handful of drivers with a legitimate shot at beating his teammate for the pole and in the big race.

''I was reflecting the other morning ... I sat on the pole 20 years ago for the Dash Series race, so this could be the longest drought between poles by any driver in the history of the sport at a particular track,'' Waltrip said.

It took Earnhardt Sr. 20 years to win the Daytona 500, although he won just about everything else here multiple times, taking the checkered flag in a record 34 different Daytona events. He was a bigger-than-life presence on the 2 1/2-mile oval.

Junior, whose best finish in the season-opening event was second in that fateful 2001 race, wants to gain the same kind of stature, and he doesn't expect to wait for his 20th Daytona 500 to win.

Between the talent he inherited from his father and the car his team has put together, Little E figures that win isn't very far away. But he insists he feels no added pressure at Daytona.

''It don't make me try harder coming here,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''It makes me feel like I come from a better breed than most of the guys I'm racing against.

''I watched (Earnhardt Sr.) real close. I learned a lot about how to drive race cars by watching him, and I was probably watching him more than he knew or anybody knew.''

The son said he tried to analyze every race his father drove in.

''I had a lot of practice just trying to think about, 'Man, how did he lose that race or how did he win that race and why did the car do that?'

''Now that I'm driving, I'm running into all these situations and understanding certain things that I've seen over the years. He was really, really good at running at this track. I always just thought it was a mind thing, but, of course, you have to have a good car.''

So far, Junior has made his biggest splash off the track as a pop culture icon -- sporting a scruffy beard, hanging with rock stars, wearing his baseball caps backward and doing interviews for publications like ''Playboy'' and ''Rolling Stone.''

What he really wants, though, is the kind of success his father enjoyed in stock car racing.

''This is a lot of pressure because, I don't know, I ain't the greatest,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''I got a long ways to go before I am the greatest, and I hate to be the guy that don't hold up his end of the deal, so it's tough being the favorite.

''The car is the favorite, maybe not the driver -- how about that?''



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