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Waltrip noses out Earnhardt in 150-miler


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Mike Skinner was looking at Ryan Newman in his rear-view mirror on Lap 58 of the first of two 150-mile qualifying races for Sunday's Daytona 500 when suddenly he saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving up beside Newman and Michael Waltrip right on Earnhardt's bumper.

It was a fearful sight on this 2.5-mile speedway on which Earnhardt and Waltrip have won three of the past four Daytona 500s.

"It was one lap too soon for me," said Skinner, who finished third in the 60-lap race. "If Dale hadn't gotten beside Newman until the next lap, I might have had a chance of holding them off. But that kid has learned so much, there is no doubt that he's a chip off the old block. He's certainly not the mailman's kid."

Earnhardt, the 2004 Daytona 500 winner and son of the late seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, got the lead but couldn't hold off Waltrip, his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate, yesterday.

On the final lap, Waltrip was on Earnhardt's rear bumper for the lead coming out of Turn 2 and down the backstretch. Coming out of Turn 4, they were side-by-side, and they stayed that way until Waltrip nudged his Chevrolet's nose in front just as they crossed the line to win by .03 of a second.

He averaged 140.442 mph, just under 5 mph less than Tony Stewart, who won the second race in his Chevrolet at an average speed of 145.161 mph.

The wins put Waltrip and Stewart, who held off Jeff Burton and his Chevy, on the second row for the start in Sunday's 500.

"We didn't get a chance to race Dale and Michael today," Stewart said after winning the first qualifying race of his career. "We'll have to see what happens. The sad thing is you have to have a teammate to have any hope. A man alone doesn't have a chance."

Stewart credited his own teammate, Bobby Labonte, who finished 12th, with giving him the bump he needed to make the pass for the lead yesterday.

"It cost Bobby, because it took some power away from him and I couldn't wait until he got it back," Stewart said. "It would have been nice to have finished one-two, but I had to go."

Under NASCAR's new system, which guarantees starting spots to the top 35 in points from last season, the final eight spots in the field were determined by yesterday's race results and last Sunday's qualifying.

The fastest two finishing drivers in each race who were not in the top 35 were added to the field and the four drivers with the best qualifying speeds not already in the race were added.

Skinner, Kenny Wallace, Kevin Lepage and Martin Truex Jr. raced their way into the 500 field yesterday, while Jason Leffler, Boris Said, John Andretti and Mike Wallace made the field with their qualifying speeds.

The top-running cars at the halfway point of yesterday's second race weren't around for the finish. Jimmie Johnson, who will start on the outside of the front row Sunday because of his pole-day qualifying speed, was leading on Lap 36, but, coming out of Turn 2, Kevin Harvick bumped him, initiating a wreck that took out Harvick, Rusty Wallace, Joe Nemechek, Mark Martin, Dave Blaney and Scott Riggs.

"It was totally ridiculous," Johnson said after Harvick's "bump-draft" move, which means one driver pushing another to create more speed.

"I got into him," Harvick said. "You certainly don't want to bump-draft through the corner, but I couldn't help it. I was coming, and he slowed down, and I couldn't get away."

It sounded like that line about someone backing up into a wreck, but Waltrip, who watched the second race and the replays, saw nothing humorous.

"You don't take a run on a guy like that without the guy in front of you losing a little momentum," he said. "So Johnson slowed, and it was Harvick's option not to run him over. Once you've taken his air and you're in the turn, you don't hit him. But Harvick just ran over him."

Remaining consistent to his statements about not just thinking about himself when he switched seats with Waltrip during the offseason, Earnhardt said yesterday he was truly happy for Waltrip's team.

"Obviously, it's going to help Michael a lot, stepping into a team that won six races last year," Earnhardt said. "But I don't feel I took a step backward or that I'm missing anything. I made a lateral move.

"I understand they had a better car today, but for me, this week was more relaxing. I enjoyed getting along with someone [crew chief Peter Rondeau] and not taking every question back to the bus with me. I don't have to think about every spring change now.

"When I made this move, I prayed that I could trade all my success at restrictor-plate races for success everywhere else."

Daytona 500

What: NASCAR Nextel Cup season opener and premier event

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

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