DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The draft is back at Daytona, and so is the last-lap drama.
In a return to the kind of bumper-to-bumper racing and tight finishes that first grabbed NASCAR fans a generation ago, Sterling Marlin and Mike Skinner won the Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races Thursday for the Daytona 500.
Marlin gave Dodge its first victory after a 16-year absence when he passed Daytona master Dale Earnhardt on the last lap, and Skinner climbed out of a sickbed to beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. by inches.
The 26-car fields were a moving mosaic throughout most of both races, with nearly constant position changes and a record 21 lead changes in the two 50-lap races.
What a change from last year on Daytona's high banks, when the two races featured one lead change in total, mostly single-file racing through the entire 250 miles and almost no excitement.
The nearly constant excitement this time, with 10 leads changes in the first race and 11 in the other, had the 125,000 spectators at Daytona International Speedway pumped up, as well as the drivers who will make up the 43-car field in Sunday's featured event.
Mike Skinner raises the trophy after winning the second Gatorade 125 qualifying race for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Feb. 15.
''Sunday is going to be the best Daytona 500 on record,'' said Marlin, a two-time winner of NASCAR's biggest event, who gave Dodge its first victory in its re-entry into Winston Cup racing after a 16-year absence.
He also gave team owner Chip Ganassi -- a four-time winner in CART -- his first NASCAR triumph in his very first race.
''Nobody is going to dominate the race,'' Marlin added. ''You can pass a lot. Before, you just hung in line and rode and rode. If the guy ahead of you made a mistake, you could pass him. Now anybody can pass just about any time.''
Jerry Nadeau, whose Chevrolet started last in the opener and wound up following Marlin past Earnhardt to finish second, said: ''This is just a sample of what racing is going to be like Sunday.''
The third caution flag of the opening race came out on lap 46 when rookie Ron Hornaday spun and defending Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett was hit from behind by Buckshot Jones as he slowed to avoid Hornaday. Both Hornaday and Jarrett spun off the track but drove on to pit lane.
That set up a restart with one trip remaining around the 2 1/2-mile oval.
Earnhardt Sr. was ahead of Jeff Gordon when the green flag waved, but Gordon slipped back into the pack and a horde of challengers loomed in The Intimidator's mirrors.
Earnhardt, who has 12 qualifying victories among his record 34 Daytona wins, nearly pushed Marlin into the infield grass as he tried to keep him from moving by on the long back straightaway. But Marlin, getting a big push from Michael Waltrip, streaked past and pulled out to a 0.103-second victory, about two car lengths.
''I was a sitting duck and they were the hunters,'' said Earnhardt, who led three times for a race-high 19 laps.
The pack behind the winner looked like a big-city rush hour, with rookie Andy Houston fourth, followed by Jimmy Spencer, Gordon, rookie Jason Leffler, Jeff Purvis, Waltrip and rookie Casey Atwood.
Skinner, whose only other Winston Cup victories were in a pair of exhibitions in Japan, wiped away tears of joy after beating Earnhardt Jr. to the flag by 0.004-seconds.
''We were right there with the cream of the crop,'' said Skinner, who was hit by stomach flu Wednesday night and spent nearly two hours getting intravenous fluids before Thursday's race.
''I forgot about it in the car,'' Skinner said of his queasy stomach. ''Having Junior beating on the side of you is as bad as having Senior beating on you.''
Skinner and the elder Earnhardt are Richard Childress Racing teammates.
Although there was a 10-car breakaway in the middle portion of the second race, with the front-runners content to stay in single file for a while, at the end it was a 19-car draft, with three-wide moves on every lap.
Rusty Wallace led from lap 34 through 45 and appeared ready to put the lie to the Ford teams' loud complaints of an aerodynamic disadvantage this season. But the Chevys of Earnhardt Jr. and Skinner, and the Pontiacs of Ken Schrader and Ward Burton blew past Wallace on lap 46.
Skinner then took the top spot from Earnhardt on lap 47 and stayed out front -- barely -- to the end.
''To win a race, any race, at Daytona is an honor,'' Skinner said. ''But I'd trade it in a minute for a points win on Sunday.''
Jeff Burton finished third in a Ford, followed by brother Ward, Wallace, Schrader and Matt Kenseth.
The only caution flag in the second race came on lap 36 when Tony Stewart, who won last Sunday's Bud Shootout, spun, was bumped by Schrader and hit Elliott Sadler. Stewart went through the backstretch grass, flattening all four tires. But he was able to continue to the pits and went on to finish 11th.
Neither Bill Elliott nor Stacy Compton, who clinched the front-row starting positions for the 500 last Saturday in time trials, had a very good day. Elliott slipped back into the pack early and wound up 20th in the opener, while Compton had handling problems in the second race and wound up 23rd.
Former race winner Derrike Cope and Dave Marcis both came up short in their final efforts to get into Sunday's 43-car field.
Cope was 18th in the first race and Marcis, whose string of 32 consecutive Daytona 500 starts ended last year, was 21st in the second. Each had to finish in the top 14 to make the field.
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