DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Nextel Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. was making progress. He had Jeff Burton on his bumper and they were working their way toward the front when Earnhardt's DEI Racing teammate, Michael Waltrip, shifted lanes to move in front of him and cut off the clean air flow that Earnhardt's Chevy was thriving on.
In other years in other races, Earnhardt might have appreciated the move. But not this time. This time, in the first of yesterday's Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races for Sunday's Daytona 500, the move was a momentum killer.
"After he did that, I knew he'd made a decision about how he was going to run the race and decided I'd try to pass him if I could," said Earnhardt, who crowded Waltrip into attempting a pass of Jeff Gordon's lapped car on Lap 37 of the 50-lap race.
When Waltrip tried the move, it created a small hole on the inside of the track, and Earnhardt stuck his Chevy's nose into it. The thrust pushed Waltrip up the Daytona International Speedway's banking and opened the way for Earnhardt to drive off to victory.
"When my car was out front, it was a beast," said Earnhardt, who averaged 156.087 mph and won by 0.245 of a second over Tony Stewart.
In the second Twin, Elliott Sadler simply dominated the field.
"This is probably the biggest and most emotional win of my career," Sadler said. "My guys got me out front and I was able to hold off some of the best drivers in the sport to win. That gives me great confidence going into the 500."
Sadler and Greg Biffle, who finished 14th in Race 1, both locked up front-row starting positions for the 500 with their qualifying runs earlier this week. But yesterday's races finalized the rest of the lineup.
Earnhardt's Race 1 victory earned him the third starting spot, and Sterling Marlin, who drove his No. 40 Dodge to a second-place finish behind Sadler yesterday, will start fourth.
Despite Sadler's dominance, Earnhardt and Waltrip, who finished fourth in Race 1 and will start ninth Sunday, are still considered the drivers to beat. But the competition was encouraged yesterday for two reasons.
First, the new, softer tires cause cars running bumper-to-bumper to overheat and tighten up, making handling a chore.
That means Earnhardt and Waltrip, who are known for their teamwork and drafting strength in restrictor-plate races (races where air flow to the carburetor is restricted, thereby cutting horsepower) should not be able to run nose-to-tail comfortably for any length of time.
And second, the change in the cars seems to have opened a small rift in the DEI race team's family. The on-track handling situation eventually led to voiced irritation.
At one point, Waltrip, who did not want to adjust his car's handling, refused to provide drafting help. "He left me out there by myself," Earnhardt said. "It pretty much wrote the script for me."
And at another, the incident Earnhardt described, Waltrip actually made a move to hinder him.
One thing led to another and, by the time the race was over, Earnhardt's crew chief, Tony Eury Sr., was more than a little irked.
"Our teammate doesn't want to be a teammate any more," Eury said on TNT. "So that's the way we're playing it, too. We just went out and won the race like we should."
For his part, Waltrip, who has won two of the last three Daytona 500s, shrugged off the incidents.
"I love Dale Jr.," he said. "We've had a lot of success ... but as far as I know, they still pay more for finishing first. He had a chance to win and he took it."
A little bickering can't hurt everyone else's chances. But Earnhardt and Waltrip are still considered the favorites here, a fact that rankled Sadler after his fine run.
"I've out-qualified [them] and I dominated my qualifying race," said Sadler, who averaged 182.334 mph in a race free of caution flags. "But it's up to everyone else about who the favorite is. It's OK. I don't mind being the underdog."
Sadler paused. He'd just run a great race. His crew chief, Todd Parrott, had told him to drive the car like he stole it, and Sadler, knowing Parrott has a great backup car ready to go if necessary, did just that.
"Shoot," Sadler said. "We're tired of hearing they're the favorites. That's the truth. Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip deserve the respect they get. They've earned it. And Todd and I know we have to outrun [Earnhardt] to win. We're sick of them being the favorite, because we want to win it, too."
NOTES: The cars of Kirk Shelmerdine and Andy Hillenburg, who finished next to last in each of their qualifying races, did not make the field. ... Gordon, who had overheating problems that cost his No. 24 Chevrolet a lap, needed a provisional, based on car-owner points from last season, to get into the 500. He'll start 39th. ... Series champion Matt Kenseth finished sixth in Race 2 and will start 12th Sunday.
Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
When: Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Pole winner: Greg Biffle
Last year's champion: Michael Waltrip