Earnhardt News
2001 Season

Daytona's back, says Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt's reputation as the Intimidator was evident on the track and absent off it.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (February 12, 2001)
Dale Earnhardt has for the last few years panned racing at Daytona International Speedway. Now, he's offering a very favorable review.

Last year, the biggest star in NASCAR history invoked the name of the founder of stock car racing's premier circuit in his critique of its marquee event. But The Intimidator -- who had said the engine package for the track ruined the Daytona 500 -- was full of praise Sunday after finishing second to Tony Stewart in the Budweiser Shootout.

"I made the comment that Bill France Sr. was probably turning over in his grave about that kind of racing," Earnhardt recalled. "Well, I'd say he'd be jumping up and down this year about this kind of racing."

What had become a single-file, 190-mph parade virtually devoid of meaningful passes, apparently has been black-flagged. A few tweaks of the racing package had the cars running side-by-side Sunday, two and occasionally three abreast with considerable passing.

"I thought it was a good show," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

He wasn't alone. In his corner were many of the drivers who dislike the package designed around power-robbing carburetor plates.

"It was something that I don't think anybody has seen here for a long time," Stewart said after winning the non-points race that serves as the first tuneup for next Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. "It gave us opportunities to really race each other in the cars instead of just riding around in them."

Stewart thought NASCAR took a positive step at Talladega Superspeedway last October when the holes in the plates were enlarged to permit more air into the carburetor, increasing power and creating quicker throttle response. The 188-lap Winston 500 had 49 lead changes among 21 drivers.

The Shootout, an event for last year's pole winners, was just as impressive. There were 19 lead changes among seven drivers in just 70 laps.

"There was a lot of moving around, a lot of passing," Jeremy Mayfield said. "I was pretty comfortable and pretty happy."

Jeff Burton wasn't. He was magnificent last year on the 2-mile oval, finishing second in the Daytona 500 and winning the Pepsi 400 in July.

Burton thinks the aero changes, which include the rear spoiler and a new metal strip placed horizontally across the roof of each car, might have made the Fords inferior to the Chevrolets, Pontiacs and perhaps even the new Dodges.

"I hate to start the year off complaining, but we're just slow," he said after finishing fifth in a field of 18. "There's not a Ford in the field that had a chance to win, and that's just the way it is."

Fellow Ford driver Dale Jarrett, the three-time and defending 500 champion, wasn't as pessimistic after running fourth behind the Pontiac of Stewart, Earnhardt's Chevy and the Ford of Rusty Wallace.

Jarrett was impressed with Stewart and Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte.

"The Pontiacs looked awfully good," said Jarrett, who won the Shootout last year. "They could get to the front and seemed to be able to stay there. If they couldn't stay there, they could get back there in a hurry."

That was an accurate assessment of the finish of the race.

Earnhardt took the lead from Stewart with two laps remaining. But Stewart was too strong and got it back the next time around.

Stewart led four times for a race-high 36 laps and beat seven-time series champion Earnhardt by 0.145-seconds -- about two car lengths.

Bill Elliott, who won the pole for the 500 in qualifying Saturday, never got into contention with the only Dodge in the race. But he wasn't discouraged by a finish of 12th in the automaker's return to Winston Cup racing after a 17-year absence.

"We learned quite a bit," the two-time Daytona 500 champion said. "The biggest thing we needed to do was run the whole race. We just need to work on our handling package a little."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wound up sixth in a Chevy, followed by Labonte's Pontiac.

Mayfield was one of only two drivers who failed to finished the race. The engine in his Ford broke after just 30 laps.



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