Defending champ Marlin makes qualifying statement

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- No one has had much to say about Sterling Marlin this week, but the defending Daytona 500 winner said a lot about himself and his car yesterday, as he dominated the first of two Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races.

Dale Earnhardt, who is as reliable as the tide, won the second Twin to claim his sixth consecutive victory in the pre-500 qualifier.

"It's good to be the defending Daytona 500 champion," said Marlin, who led 43 of the 50 laps in his race. "If you look at the record book, they have a repeat winner just about every 10 years, and it has been about 10 years since they've had one, so we'll keep our fingers crossed."

Marlin will start in the third row of Sunday's Daytona 500, alongside Jeff Gordon, who finished second to Earnhardt in the second Twin. The top 15 finishers in each of yesterday's two races earned starting spots in Sunday's race behind the front row of Dale Jarrett and Earnhardt, who clinched their starting spots in time trials Saturday.

The rest of the 42-car field is made up of the eight cars with the next fastest qualifying speeds and four provisionals, which are determined by NASCAR, the sanctioning body.

"The car is real comfortable, and I have a good feeling about Sunday," said Earnhardt, who is 0-for-16 in the Daytona 500. "I'm more upbeat than usual about Sunday."

Marlin is also upbeat and demonstrated a lot of muscle in driving his new Chevrolet Monte Carlo to a .14-second victory over Darrell Waltrip, while averaging 150.050 mph and finishing the 50-lap run over the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in 49 minutes, 59 seconds.

"With a little adjustment, we'll be really good Sunday," Marlin said. "The Monte Carlo is a real good hot rod."

When asked which cars he considers the ones to beat, Marliran off a list that included his own, Gordon's, Bobby Labonte's (in the Joe Gibbs car) and Earnhardt's.

"Dale hasn't won it in 16 years of trying," said Marlin. "Hopefully, he'll win it one of these years. He's certainly due, and I'd like him to get one -- but we'd like to win this one."

Earnhardt faced a tougher challenger in his qualifier, though it may have been the Ford drivers overall who faced the true challenge.

Earnhardt had to hold off Gordon, Mark Martin, Labonte and Morgan Shepherd before winning the race by .28 of a second at an average speed of 131.887 mph.

But the Ford drivers, who hoped to hear some good news yesterday, found only what they had feared most. The new Chevy Monte Carlos run fast, draft well and seem overpowering.

"The Chevrolet drivers didn't have to lift [off the gas], and that's what let them get away," said Jarrett, who finished third to Marlin's and Waltrip's Chevys. "I got behind Darrell, and he could just motor on through the corner where I was having to lift. His car just stayed stuck [to the track]. We're going to have to figure out something in the next two days to deal with them."

In the other 125, Earnhardt and Gordon took the top two places in Chevys before the Fords of Martin, Todd Bodine, Bill Elliott and Ted Musgrave crossed the finish line.

"We've done our homework," said Earnhardt, who collected his 25th victory at this track. "I think the Ford guys will do theirs, and, by Sunday, 6 [Martin] and 94 [Elliott] will be strong. Those guys just have a little fine-tuning to do."

* Shawna Robinson, who was attempting to become the first woman since Janet Guthrie in 1980 to make the field of the 500, finished 26th in her Ford, and did not make the race.

* In one of the 125s, John Andretti was running seventh when rookie Ricky Craven smashed him into the fourth-turn wall.

"I got sideways off 4 and got into some other cars," Craven said. "It would have been a shame to miss our first Daytona 500, but we're in it now. I was focusing on getting in the race."

Andretti said it would have been a shame to miss the race with his new team, too.

"I don't think I've ever been so furious in my career," said Andretti, who added that the fury dissipated when he learned he is still in the big race.

Craven went on to finish seventh and will start 14th on Sunday. Andretti, who had to pull off the track, finished 21st and made the race on his qualifying speed (190.010). He will start 38th.

* The International Race of Champions, matching 12 of the world's top drivers in identical race cars, kicks off at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow, with a heavy contingent of Winston Cup drivers on board.

Yesterday, Gordon, who is competing in the four-race series for the first time, said this about the intensity on the racetrack:

"I learned what it will be like during practice," Gordon said. "Earnhardt and Kenny Schrader and I were on the track running three-wide heading for a corner.

"I looked over at Schrader, and he's not even looking at me. I figured he's not lifting [off the gas]. I looked over at Dale, and he's grinning and waving. I figured he's not lifting either. It's hard to figure that the 23-year-old would be the one to lift, but somebody had to be smart in that crowd."

Earnhardt pointed out that it wasn't his car. Schrader shrugged, "I'd hate to think Jeff Gordon was the smartest guy out there."

Lineup for Sunday's Daytona 500

1. Dale Jarrett, Ford Thunderbird, 193.494 mph; 2. Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 193.449; 3. Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet Monte Carlo; 4. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet Monte Carlo; 5. Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet Monte Carlo; 6. Mark Martin, Ford Thunderbird; 7. Rusty Wallace, Ford Thunderbird; 8. Todd Bodine, Ford Thunderbird; 9. Ken Schrader, Chevrolet Monte Carlo; 10. Bill Elliott, Ford Thunderbird;

11. Terry Labonte, Chevrolet Monte Carlo; 12. Ted Musgrave, Ford Thunderbird; 13. Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix; 14. Ricky Craven, Chevrolet Monte Carlo; 15. Michael Waltrip, Pontiac Grand Prix; 16. Lake Speed, Ford Thunderbird; 17. Dick Trickle, Ford Thunderbird; 18. Ricky Rudd, Ford Thunderbird; 19. Dave Marcis, Chevrolet Monte Carlo; 20. Bobby Labonte, Ford Thunderbird;

21. Ward Burton, Chevrolet Monte Carlo; 22. Derrike Cope, Ford Thunderbird; 23. Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet Monte Carlo; 24. Randy LaJoie, Pontiac Grand Prix; 25. Bobby Hamilton, Pontiac Grand Prix; 26. Ben Hess, Ford Thunderbird; 27. Joe Ruttman, Ford Thunderbird; 28. Jeff Burton, Ford Thunderbird; 29. Jeremy Mayfield, Ford Thunderbird; 30. Morgan Shepherd, Ford Thunderbird;

31. Robert Pressley, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 193.050; 32. Phil Parsons, Ford Thunderbird, 191.824; 33. Davy Jones, Ford Thunderbird, 191.546; 34. Jeff Purvis, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 191.156; 35. Steve Grissom, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 190.589; 36. Mike Wallace, Ford Thunderbird, 190.335; 37. Loy Allen Jr., Ford Thunderbird, 190.247; 38. John Andretti, Ford Thunderbird, 190.010; 39. Brett Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, no speed, provisional starter; 40. Geoff Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, no speed, provisional starter; 41. Rick Mast, Ford Thunderbird, no speed, provisional starter; 42. Steve Kinser, Ford Thunderbird, no speed, provisional starter.

Top finishers in Twin 125 qualifying races

First race -- 1. Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, $35,000, 150.050 mph; 2. Darrell Waltrip, Monte Carlo, $20,000; 3. Dale Jarrett, Ford Thunderbird, $15,000; 4. Rusty Wallace, Thunderbird, $10,000; 5. Ken Schrader, Monte Carlo, $7,500.

Second race -- 1. Dale Earnhardt, Monte Carlo, $35,000, 131.887 mph; 2. Jeff Gordon, Monte Carlo, $20,000; 3. Mark Martin, Thunderbird, $15,000; 4. Todd Bodine, Thunderbird, $10,000; 5. Bill Elliott, Thunderbird, $7,500.

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