Two things were proved in Thursday’s Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500: Dale Earnhardt is still the man to beat and Ernie Irvan is all the way back.
Those two, already the front-row starters in Sunday’s race by virtue of qualifying laps in time trials, proved their earlier performances were no flukes. Earnhardt held off two-time defending Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin to win the first race and Irvan continued his incredible comeback from near-fatal injuries by leading every lap of his race.
“That’s pretty impressive, even to myself,” Earnhardt said of his seventh straight victory in the prelude to the biggest race he has never won.
The seven-time Winston Cup champion has led the Daytona 500 many times and finished second on three occasions, including two of the last three years.
“That’s just one step toward that Daytona 500 win, and that’s what we’re working for,” he said. “I’ve got high expectations. This could be our year.”
Irvan, seriously injured in a crash at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 20, 1994, began his comeback with three Winston Cup races late last season. He finished in the top 10 twice.
His narrow victory over Ken Schrader on Thursday was Irvan’s second in the qualifying races and his first win of any kind since taking a road race at Sonoma, Calif., in May 1994.
“The day I got hurt, we were racing Earnhardt for the championship,” Irvan said. “There’s nothing more that I’d like than to be racing Earnhardt for the championship again. That’s when (the comeback) is going to be complete.”
The first race was pretty much a single-file event, with Marlin passing Earnhardt on the first lap and leading until lap 30. That’s when Earnhardt, with some drafting help from former Daytona winner Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte, moved into the lead to stay.
Three laps from the end, Marlin tried to make a high move coming off the fourth turn, but Earnhardt stayed in front of him as Jarrett and Labonte went low and wedged between the two leaders.
Marlin, who won the other qualifying race in 1995, got back to second place on the last lap, but finished 0.16-seconds, about three car-lengths, behind Earnhardt’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The winner averaged 143.039 mph.
That race was slowed by rain showers that caused brief caution periods and a multi-car crash on lap 44 when Bobby Hillin Jr. and Brett Bodine came together coming off turn two.
The second race was also mostly single-file and was run without incident. Irvan stayed at the front of an eight-car lead pack all the way and averaged 186.027 mph.
Spokane native Chad Little, driving a Pontiac Grand Prix, completed all 50 laps, but finished 15th. He earned $3,972. He will start 30th on Sunday.