DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - "A beast" is how Dale Earnhardt Jr. described his racecar when asked how it runs with the lead. That was bad news for the rest of the Daytona 500 field when he made the remark Thursday, and even worse news for his rivals today.
Late yesterday afternoon, after driver Greg Biffle complained to his crew that his Ford didn't have the power it had had earlier in the week, his crew discovered a leaky engine valve.
"It's a no-brainer," said car No. 16's crew chief, Doug Richert, as he directed an engine change that, according to the rules, will force Biffle to give up his No. 1 starting position on the pole and move to the back of the field.
That move means the row of cars behind him will move forward one spot, putting Earnhardt, whose Chevrolet loves to run up front in the clean air, into position to lead the field to the starting line for the 1:30 p.m. race.
The Earnhardt team called a meeting when it learned of its promotion and would not make anyone available for comment.
"The good news for us is we discovered something wrong and can fix it," said Richert. "More good news is we discovered it now and didn't wait to have a heart attack during the race.
"We're out to win the championship and we aren't going to jeopardize that by taking a chance on the engine just to start on the front row."
The bad news for Biffle is that it's a long, long way from the back of the 43-car field to the front. He will have company back there, however. Ryan Newman, who qualified 20th, Ricky Craven, 28th, and Derrike Cope, 42nd, also had to change engines yesterday.
Scott Riggs, 36th, who was forced to go to a backup car because of an accident in the 125s Thursday, will also have to go to the back.
"I know a lot of teams won't be happy to see Earnhardt on the pole," Richert said. "But starting in the first or second row isn't going to make that big a difference over 500 miles. As for the impact on us, our handling is good and Carl Edwards won the Craftsman Truck race from the back Friday night, so we know it can be done."
Busch will be tomorrow
The Hershey's Kisses 300 Busch Series race was red-flagged after 31 laps because of rain. Three hours and 20 minutes later, it was postponed until 11 a.m. tomorrow. It's the first time in the history of the Saturday race that it has been rained out.
Earnhardt was leading when the race was stopped, and Brandywine, Md., driver Donnie Neuenberger, whose Ford is sponsored by the University of Maryland, was running 25th, having moved up from his 40th-place starting position.
The race will pick up where it left off tomorrow and be carried live on TNT.
Glitz and more glitz
It's getting so a person can hardly walk around the track area without bumping into a celebrity. Yesterday, actor Ben Affleck, who will drive the pace car at the start of the 500, was spotted leaning on a stack of tires near pit road. ... President Bush is expected here today and fans have been advised to be ready for thorough baggage checks. ... Comedian Whoopi Goldberg, the honorary starter, will wave the checkered flag to start the race. ... And LeAnn Rimes and Lee Greenwood will sing a tribute to America before the race.