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Earnhardt geared for more fireworks at Daytona

Jul 2, 2002 10:09 AM

After a well rested week off, the Winston Cup Series marches into Daytona on Saturday for a night full of fireworks in the Pepsi 400.

With so many avenues of discussion available as topics, the top story will always and forever center around Dale Earnhardt Jr. (4-1) as long as he races at Daytona. This is the sight where his father tragically died on the last lap of last year’s Daytona 500. And once again, Junior must deal with the memories.

Though Junior appears to keep it all in stride, we all know he must have the most gut-wrenching pain everytime he sets foot onto the track. Any person would feel that pain as they stopped by a memorial or sight of where someone they loved had passed away.

The difference for Junior is that he must go through the same exact duties as his father did at Daytona twice a year for the rest of his career. We would have all understood if the pain was too much for Junior to drive at that particular track and he chose to skip the races. However, he decided to pay his respects to his father by imitating "The Intimidator" in spirit.

Had Junior been an also-ran, the focus of this year’s race may have moved on to great stories like the exciting Winston Cup Championship chase between the Top 5 drivers in the standings or the resurgence of Roush Racing. The combination of his learned skills by observing "The Master of the Draft," natural instincts, and of course a top flight car have helped etched Junior’s way to the front as the top restrictor plate driver in Winston Cup today.

DEI Enterprises was set up and built by Dale Earnhardt with the help of Richard Childress. Over the last two seasons, the duo of Junior and Michael Waltrip (12-1) have combined to win four of the 12 races that require the restrictor plate package. On three of those occasions, the duo finished 1-2, including the last two of three Daytona races.

In this race last season, Junior had the whole world rooting for him to win in his father’s honor and Waltrip held off all challengers. It was a bizarre twist because Dale Earnhardt had done the same thing to thwart all challengers in the Daytona 500 which led to the fatal crash.

Following that glorious moment of fulfillment and redemption for Junior, uninformed sports journalists questioned the legitimacy of the win and hinted the "good ole boys" let Junior win as a way for them to pay their respect. That speculation tore Junior apart.

To further prove his supremacy on the Superspeedways and legitimize his most triumphant moment to the uninformed, Junior went out and won the next two races in a row at Talladega which is his only win of the season. Those same journalists never lent credit to Junior based on the facts of his past and present performances on Superspeedways because it wasn’t as catchy as the hoopla surrounding a good "fix." This Saturday, Junior again will be in the spotlight and the trends show he’ll likely perform brilliantly.

The secondary story of the race centers around who can beat Junior. The answer appears to be Goodyear because that is what stopped him from contending for this year’s Daytona 500.

There are actually several good candidates starting with Jimmie Johnson (10-1) and Jeff Gordon (6-1). Johnson has sat on the pole for both plate races this season. The rookie got himself in trouble early in the Daytona 500, but settled down and finished a respectable 15th. He fared much better at Talladega with a seventh place finish and that was all prior to him getting his first win. After dominating the last two months, his confidence level is at an all-time high.

Gordon is a four-time winner at Daytona, winning this race twice. He was in prime position to capture his third Daytona 500 victory until Sterling Marlin (10-1) spun out both of their chances. Gordon should consider himself extremely lucky to be in the position he’s in after Sears Point. It’s possible he may be just looking for a good finish to solidify his chase for a fifth championship, but this race is also a "No Bull 5" race where Gordon is eligible for the $1 million dollar bonus. All he has to do is win.

Tony Stewart (8-1) should be considered one of the candidates to topple Junior. He’s had some poor luck in the two restrictor plate point races this season, but in the pre-season Bud Shootout at Daytona, Stewart was scorching fast. The Pontiac Grand Prix has also been given a few advantages in aero-dynamics since the last Talladega race that will surely help the down force. His best career finish at Daytona is sixth and he’s done it twice, both in the fall races.

Las Vegan Kurt Busch (10-1) has shown tremendous poise in nearly every type of track. On the Superspeedways, he’s been extraordinary. Busch has a third and fourth place finish in the two plate races this season and is fast learning how to manipulate the air of the draft.

Look for Dale Jarrett (10-1), a four-time Daytona winner, and Sterling Marlin, a three-time Daytona winner, to give Junior a run for his money.

Junior is not one of the drivers eligible for the "No Bull 5" million. Matt Kenseth (12-1), Ricky Craven (25-1), Mark Martin (10-1), and Ricky Rudd (12-1) join Gordon as the contenders for the bonus. Other than Gordon, none have ever won at Daytona. That’s a particular shock for Martin and Rudd, who have 83 combined Daytona starts over their long careers.

TOP 5 AT DAYTONA

1 #8 Dale Earnhardt Jr (4-1)

2) #97 Kurt Busch (10-1)

3) #24 Jeff Gordon (6-1)

4) #48 Jimmie Johnson(10-1)

5) #20 Tony Stewart (8-1)