Dale Earnhardt's latest visit to Victory Circle at Daytona has him thinking like a winner again.
"It's about time," Earnhardt said Thursday after winning a Daytona 500 qualifying race for the ninth straight time. "We won last year here and we didn't get another one. But we're going to start our winning streak right here with this one."
The Intimidator was preceded to the most coveted spot at Daytona International Speedway by Sterling Marlin, who twice has done something Earnhardt yearns to do win the Daytona 500.
Their victories came in the Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races, the final tuneups for Sunday's 500.
Earnhardt, seeking his first Daytona 500 victory in 20 tries and hoping to end a career-worst winless run of 59 races, dominated the second of the qualifiers. It ended under caution, after a last-lap spin by Loy Allen Jr. robbed a crowd of 115,000 of the thrill of seeing Earnhardt hold off a final challenge.
It was a record 30th victory at Daytona for Earnhardt, and his 11th overall in the qualifying races that determine positions 3-30 for the NASCAR Winston Cup season opener.
Although it's been 23 months since Earnhardt last won a points race, the seven-time Winston Cup champion has lost none of his confidence.
"This is a good race car, and we've got an even better engine for Sunday's race," he said.
The win put him fourth in the 43-car field, alongside Marlin and just behind brothers Bobby and Terry Labonte. They clinched the front-row spots in time trials last week.
"Going to win it!" Earnhardt said forcefully when asked about his chances Sunday.
Michael Waltrip's Ford Taurus was second to Earnhardt Chevrolet's Monte Carlo. Waltrip was followed by Earnhardt's teammate, Mike Skinner.
Marlin's victory in a Team Sabco Chevrolet didn't come as easily. He started 12th in the 28-car field, and was handling badly in the early going. But by the middle of the race, he hooked up with Bobby Labonte.
"We were pushing pretty bad there for a while," said Marlin, who won the 500 in 1994 and successfully defended his title after winning a qualifying race.
"I said, `I'm going to the bottom and hold it wide open.' It worked great," Marlin explained. "The last 15 to 20 laps, we never lifted."
Labonte, who will start from the pole Sunday, led 16 of the first 17 laps before being caught out of the draft and slipping back.
"I think we learned a lot. ... I probably feel a little better about Sunday now," Labonte said.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett's Taurus finished between Marlin and Labonte.
Jarrett said it was learning experience for teams using Tauruses, which replaced the discontinued Thunderbird.
"We've got a whole lot of things that didn't work on this Taurus and a short list of things that have worked," he said. "That's what we've got to continue to do, find the things that do, because it's so different from the T-Bir."
Defending series and race champion Jeff Gordon led laps 22 through 33, and was still out front when crew chief Ray Evernham chose to bring him in for fresh tires during a caution.
Ken Schrader also stopped for tires, and the two teams agreed their drivers would try to draft back toward the front together. They were 16th and 17th on the restart, but Schrader appeared unable to stay with Gordon, who found himself out of the main draft on lap 44.
Gordon held on to finish 15th, getting the final transfer spot in the opening race and earning the 29th position in Sunday's field.
"I felt like we had the car to win," Gordon said. "Pitting just wasn't the right thing for us to do today."
His stop almost cost Marlin the race. Marlin's crew chief told him to stop, but he messed up.
Tony Glover said, "If Gordon comes in, come with him," Marlin explained. "Well, he faked me out, and it worked out pretty good for us."
Terry Labonte, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, had an awful day, parking the car and finishing last after having problems getting his Monte Carlo up to speed at the start.
Both races had crashes: three in the first event and one six-car melee near the start of the second. Several drivers were knocked out of the 500, including 1996 Rookie of the Year Johnny Benson Jr. Also failing to make the field were series regulars Hut Stricklin, Kenny Wallace and Wally Dallenbach Jr.
Among the other drivers involved in the incidents was Schrader, who sustained a fractured sternum. He was released from the hosiptail and planned to drive on Sunday.
Written by Mike Harris AP Motorsports Writer
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