DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) The Daytona 500 is still three days away and already NASCAR is in midseason form. The Dale Earnhardt Inc. team is running out in front and Kevin Harvick is being rapped for reckless driving.
Michael Waltrip passed DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final straightaway to win the first of two 150-mile qualifying races Thursday, while Tony Stewart won the second race after Harvick bumped leader Jimmie Johnson and ignited a wild crash.
Waltrip's victory put to rest speculation that the DEI team's days of dominance are over.
''We certainly caught a lot of flak over the last week about the way our cars qualified,'' Waltrip said. ''This silenced it.''
It's hardly unusual for Waltrip and Earnhardt to wind up at the front of a race at Daytona International Speedway, where the two have combined to win three of the last four 500-mile races and a qualifying race each of those years.
This year, though, it was far from a certainty especially after defending 500 champion Earnhardt struggled in the non-points Budweiser Shootout on the 2 1/2-mile oval and he and Waltrip qualified 39th and 33rd in time trials last week.
As for the dramatic pass that brought him the win, Waltrip said, ''I plan out moves like that all the time and they never work.''
But Waltrip, who won by .030 seconds about half a car length wasn't surprised by the 1-2 DEI finish.
''After practice yesterday, I knew we'd be a force in the 150 and the Daytona 500,'' the two-time 500 winner said.
Earnhardt, who fought an ill-handling car early in the race, wasn't surprised, either.
''It just seems to go in cycles,'' Earnhardt said. ''We had our run and we've all known over the last couple of years they've been closing the gap. Yet we ain't falling off to the point when we can't compete. Everybody is working hard to catch us, and eventually they will.''
Jeff Gordon, a two-time Daytona winner who finished seventh in the first race, isn't so sure about that.
''They've never qualified good. They've always, you know, been mediocre in practice, and they always go in the race,'' he said. ''I'd like to know what it is that they got, because they obviously know how to sandbag well.''
Not true, Earnhardt protested.
''I don't know what the benefit to that would be,'' he said. ''If there was one, I would do it. The cars have been slow, we've changed some things and I don't know if we're better or not. I think if we went and qualified all over again this car would still be slow.
''I swear on the bible we ain't been sandbagging.''
Midway through the second race, Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate who trailed only three-time Daytona winner Dale Jarrett in pole qualifying last Sunday, was out front when he was bumped by Harvick. Johnson's Chevrolet was turned sideways, igniting the crash that took out top contenders Johnson, Harvick, Mark Martin, Joe Nemechek and Rusty Wallace.
Johnson was furious, saying Harvick should know better than to bump draft in the turns. He said Harvick should be fired by team owner Richard Childress and penalized by NASCAR.
''It's a shame,'' Johnson said. ''He tore up six or seven good race cars.''
Harvick said Johnson bobbled in the turn.
''I just got to him and he checked up and I got to him and I couldn't get off of him,'' Harvick said. ''I just spun him out and I feel sorry for the teams and everybody involved. It's not something where you want to bump draft in the middle of the corner.''
Waltrip, who was watching the second race, wouldn't let Harvick off the hook. ''It was Harvick's option not to run him over,'' Waltrip said. ''If you're in the turn, you don't hit the guy.''
Stewart held off Jeff Burton, Harvick's Richard Childress Racing teammate, for the second race win, crossing the finish line about two car-lengths in front.
Mike Skinner, a regular in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck series and driving here for Bill Davis Racing, led the opener after the third caution flag of the race. He appeared on the way to victory until the DEI cars ganged up on him at the end.
Skinner wound up third, followed by Ryan Newman, Ricky Rudd, defending Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon.
Kevin Lepage finished third in the second race, earning a starting spot in the field, as did fourth-place finisher Martin Truex Jr., the third DEI car.
A rule change this year guaranteed the top 35 teams in car owner points starting spots on Sunday. Four more drivers made it on speed and the final four positions were up for grabs Thursday.
Making it in on qualifying speed were Jason Leffler, Boris Said, John Andretti and Mike Wallace, while Skinner, Kenny Wallace, Truex and Lepage raced in on Thursday.
Drivers who failed to make the field included Kerry Earnhardt, Dale's older half-brother who lost out when he was passed in the final yards by Kenny Wallace, and Robby Gordon, a seven-time Daytona veteran fielding his own team this year.
But the news wasn't all bad for Kerry. On Thursday night, he won the first pole of his career in qualifying for Friday's Craftsman Truck series race.
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