Earnhardt News
2001 Season

The Intimidator will win Daytona 500 in a rough draft
Earnhardt poised for second Daytona 500 win
By Mark Bechtel, Sports Illustrated

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (February 14, 2001)
Anytime someone prefaces a statement by saying, "I'm not complaining or whining, but ... " they are, in fact, complaining and whining.

Witness Jeff Burton, who, following Sunday's Budweiser Shootout, said, "I'm not complaining or whining, that's just the fact.

When they made these changes for the aero deal, it just penalized the Fords. I don't think they did it intentionally. It's just more drag on us than it was compared to other teams and, because of that, we won't win the Daytona 500 unless it turns into something strange."

Of course, if we didn't have whining and complaining, it wouldn't be Daytona, now would it? And if it's Daytona, we must also have accusations of playing possum.

When a pair of Dodges landed on the front row Saturday, the rest of the field accused the new kids on the block of loading their Intrepids with some of the sandy stuff from one of the area's beaches during practice. "The Dodges did a great job of sandbagging," huffed Ken Schrader, who drives a Pontiac.

Schrader and the rest of those who accused the Dodge camp of holding back in practice must have loved it Sunday when Bill Elliott's Intrepid was a non-factor in the Shootout. His car didn't seem to handle well, and he never led a lap. But if anyone can figure out how to get the Dodges to handle, it's Ray Evernham. And thanks to Dodge's information-sharing, "One-Team" approach (which they love to tout), everyone in an Intrepid will benefit from Dr. Ray's magic touch. So the first thing to remember for Sunday's Great American Race is not to count out Elliott, who has won the 500 twice.

The situation for the Fords isn't quite as rosy. Under the new rules in use at restrictor-plate tracks -- where cars are slowed down by being "dirtied up" aerodynamically, which in turn allows the restrictor plates used to be less restrictive, which then permits cars to once again slingshot around each other -- Fords are required to run with larger strips of metal attached to their spoilers than other makes.

The move is meant to level the playing field, but Burton has a point when he says that it is going to be tough for a Taurus to compete. Not even the vaunted Robert Yates engines -- which dominated last year's Speedweeks -- were enough to allow Dale Jarrett or Ricky Rudd to so much as lead a lap in the Shootout. The only Ford driver to lead the race was Mark Martin, and that was after he took two tires on his green flag pit stop when most everyone else took four.

The new aero rules are designed to make the race more exciting, and if last year's Talladega race -- the first run with the new package -- is any indication, it should work. At Talladega, drivers played hot potato with the lead, in stark contrast to last year's Daytona 500, during which passes were scarcer than at a Quaker singles night mixer. In addition to making things more fun to watch, the new setup will also change the dynamic of the race. Not to take anything away from Jarrett, but his win last year could be attributed largely to the engine under his hood. With the old plates, it was simply impossible for anyone to make a run on him. Now, though, whoever has the lead late can be sure of one thing: a dozen or so cars will have a shot at getting around him. A premium is going to be placed on nerves and a willingness to swap a little -- or a lot of -- paint.

Reviewing the action in the Shootout, Dale Earnhardt said, "It wasn't that bad," which, when translated out of Earnhardt-speak means it was pretty darn good. Earnhardt hates restrictor plates almost as much as he loves to talk about how much he hates restrictor plates, but in a tasty bit of irony no one drives better with them than he does.

Couple his knowledge (you've all heard the stories about how Earnhardt can see the air go over a car in the draft) with his guts, and you have your favorite for Sunday's race. (And it definitely doesn't hurt that he's in a Chevy.) Tony Stewart is also going to be tough. He's not quite the draftsman Earnhardt is, but Stewart showed in winning the Shootout Sunday that he isn't afraid of sticking his Pontiac anywhere on the track to protect a lead. And don't rule out the Yates boys, Jarrett and Rudd.

As for a dark horse, I spent the early part of last week telling anyone who would listen that Jerry Nadeau is going to be a major factor. He runs a Hendrick motor, he drives a Chevy, he finally has a win under his belt -- his first win came in the last race of the 2000 season, at Atlanta, which, while it isn't a superspeedway, is pretty big and fast -- and he was very strong at Talladega.

Then Nadeau went out and put up the second-fastest qualifying time, which sort of expelled him from the ranks of the underdogs. However, his time was thrown out because his car was too low to the ground and NASCAR officials impounded a spring and shock combo from his car. His second-round time was awful, and now, thanks to the car cops, he's back among the underdogs, which means I can officially tout him as my dark horse again. So if he wins Sunday, I'll look brilliant.



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