It used to be one of the most exciting days of Daytona Speed Weeks. Dale Earnhardt and Sterling Marlin turned it into a bore.
Earnhardt and Marlin eliminated any doubt that the new Chevrolet Monte Carlo is a great race car, overpowering their respective fields to win the Twin 125 qualifying races on Thursday.
Earnhardt already had locked up a spot on the outside of the front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500, but he didn’t play it safe in the second of the 50-lap races. After starting from the pole and getting passed on the first lap, he weaved his way back through the field and passed Mark Martin’s Ford Thunderbird for the lead on lap 21.
Except for a two-lap caution period when Spokane native Chad Little cut a tire and most of the leaders dived into the pits for new tires of their own, Earnhardt held on the rest of the way for his 25th victory at Daytona International Speedway, including his sixth straight win in a qualifying race and eighth overall.
“We’ve been working every day to get better,” said Earnhardt, who beat Jeff Gordon’s Chevy by about three car lengths. “Believe it or not, we’ve improved a lot since Sunday” when he captured his 24th Daytona victory, the Busch Clash.
But for all his Daytona triumphs, Earnhardt has never won the 500. He sounds like his 17th try may provide the best chance yet to erase the one blotch from his record.
“I’m excited about it,” the seven-time Winston Cup champion said. “I’m upbeat about it, more so than usual.”
Marlin, the defending Daytona 500 winner, was even more impressive than Earnhardt in the first 125-mile race of the day. He led all but six laps for a four-length victory over Darrell Waltrip.
The new Monte Carlo, replacing the Lumina on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, swept the top two places in both races. Ford had to settle for third-place showings by Dale Jarrett and Martin.
“I feel real good about the Monte Carlo,” Earnhardt said. “The car ran really great and I feel good about the way it handled. We’re looking good in the Monte Carlos right now, but I feel like some of the Ford guys, No. 6 (Martin) and 94 (Bill Elliott), will be really strong on Sunday when they get done with their fine tuning.”
One of the Ford guys he didn’t mention was Jarrett, who will start from the pole in the Daytona 500 based on his 193.494 mph speed in time trials last weekend.
After what some people felt was a disappointing performance by the man who took over the powerhouse No. 28 Thunderbird from injured Ernie Irvan, Jarrett said, “When they started going by me at the first there, I couldn’t get any help and I couldn’t take any chances there just to see what we had. We needed to run and see what we had and then make an adjustment, and then we found out what that did for us. We are a lot better and we’ll be in good shape on Sunday.”
Earnhardt begins from the No. 2 position and the 125s set the 3-30 positions, giving Marlin a prime position on the inside of the second row.
The final 12 positions in the 42-car field were determined by qualifying speeds from three days of time trials and provisional status based on last year’s top-40 car-owner points.
Little wound up 25th in his heat and failed to make the field for Sunday’s race.
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