DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. A week ago, just about everybody was convinced that the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team's Daytona dominance was done.
After struggling last week in qualifying, the DEI duo of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip suddenly jumped back into the role of favorites for Sunday's Daytona 500 with an electrifying performance in their 150-mile qualifying race.
After coming from the rear of the pack Thursday in the qualifier, two-time 500 winner Waltrip shot past defending race champion Earnhardt on the final straightaway to win by half a car length.
''Dale Jr. said that everything would be clear after Thursday, and I think he's right,'' Waltrip said, grinning. ''We've got fast cars.''
Even after losing Thursday, Earnhardt was sounding just as confident.
''It never was that we were falling off,'' Earnhardt explained. ''It's just that other people have been catching up. Nobody should be surprised if me and Michael are still running good at Daytona.''
Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway NASCAR's longest and fastest ovals are the only tracks where the cars are slowed for safety reasons by horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates.
The slower speeds tend to bunch up the field, with a lot of two- and three-wide racing. Over the past four years, DEI has been the team able to get the most out of its plate engines and give Earnhardt and Waltrip a real advantage.
They have turned that edge into 11 victories in the last 16 races at the plate tracks. That includes wins in three of the last four Daytona 500s.
But there is evidence that other teams have made serious inroads, particularly Hendrick Motorsports with two-time 500 winner Jeff Gordon and Nextel Cup championship favorite Jimmie Johnson.
''It cycles,'' Earnhardt said. ''There was a time when Dale Jarrett was dominant at Daytona for four or five years. We had our run, and we've all known that they've been closing the gap over the past couple of years.
''It's been more of a challenge to win these races. Yet we're still competitive. We ain't fallen off to the point where we can't compete. We just peaked.''
Earnhardt noted that nobody keeps an advantage for long in NASCAR.
''When you're out front and leading the pack in any category, everybody else is working hard to catch you, and eventually they will,'' he said.
Gordon, who split the four plate races with Earnhardt last year, agrees.
''I don't think there's much doubt that the Hendrick cars and a few others have closed the gap on those DEI cars,'' Gordon said. ''They're not done, though. They kind of lulled everybody last week with their qualifying, but those guys are always good in the draft.
''In these plate races, it's all about positioning, and Junior and Michael always seems to be in the right spot when the race gets down toward the end.''
Still, everyone is expecting a wide-open race on Sunday.
Besides Gordon and Johnson, whose first plate race victory came here Feb. 12 in the non-points Budweiser Shootout, the Hendricks entry of second-year Cup driver Brian Vickers could be a threat. Also worth watching: Joe Gibbs Racing's Tony Stewart, who won Thursday's second qualifying race, MB2/MBV teammates Joe Nemechek and Scott Riggs, three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett and his Robert Yates Racing teammate Elliott Sadler, and the Roush Racing trio of reigning Cup champion Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin.
Martin and Rusty Wallace, each starting his final season in NASCAR's top stock car series, saw their chances in the 500 lessen when they got caught up in a wild crash during their 150-miler and heavily damaged their primary cars. Martin was trying to repair his, but Wallace will have to use his backup Sunday and go to the back of the field.
There will also be a lot of attention on Kevin Harvick, whose bump on Johnson's rear bumper ignited the multicar crash and infuriated Johnson and other drivers.
Harvick and Johnson were summoned to the NASCAR hauler in an effort to defuse a dangerous situation. Some drivers were still upset, though, including Nemechek, who also was involved in the crash.
''He cost a bunch of people good race cars, hard work, a lot of money, and they ought to make him pay for it,'' Nemechek said.
If everyone can stay out of trouble Sunday, nobody will be surprised if Earnhardt's No. 8 Chevrolet and Waltrip's No. 15 Monte Carlo are at the front of the pack heading toward the checkered flag least of all the DEI drivers.
''We just have to get a little bit better,'' Junior said. ''We're going to work on the chassis a little bit and the motor shop has been working day and night since qualifying, so we've got some extra steam coming. So we're just looking forward to the start of the 500.''
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