Earnhardt Jr. happy just to qualify for 300

`Hoping to get in top 25,' Busch champ in at No. 16

Daytona notebook

February 10, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Just because Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the defending Busch Grand National champion doesn't mean he has a pre-ordained right to the pole for the NAPA Auto Parts 300 Saturday.

That became clear, when Ken Schrader (189.865 mph) and Randy LaJoie (189.661) earned the front-row starting positions, and Earnhardt (187.891) had to be satisfied with 16th -- and was.

"This is a victory for us," Earnhardt said. "We've been struggling all week. I was hoping to get in the top 25, so we could begin working on our race setup instead of fooling with it for second-round qualifying."

He got his wish. So did Adam Petty (187.778), a rookie who clinched 21st and the fourth generations of Pettys.

Those who were not so lucky include Dale Earnhardt's oldest son, Kerry (29); Mark Martin; Jason Jarrett, the 23-year-old son of Dale Jarrett; and Mark Green, who drives for the Joe Washington/Julius Erving team.

"I think we have a pretty good car for the race, if we can find enough speed to get in it," said Green, who will try to qualify again today. "We'll just keep trying."

Maryland blues

Maryland's Goody's Dash contingent will also have to try again today. Westminster's Steve Barnes and Brandywine's Donnie Neuenberger were the first two cars to attempt qualifying yesterday for Friday's 21st Goody's race. But they didn't wind up up front.

Instead, Scott Weaver earned the pole with a run of 158.270 and Barnes (150.895) and Neuenberger (150.115) were 43rd and 46th, respectively, in the first-round try.

"We're hoping to find some more speed," said Barnes' crew chief, Howard Williams. "We'll make some more changes and see what we can find."

Barnes, who had a full-season sponsorship deal a year ago, is funded for only this race.

As for Neuenberger, he was 13th in points last season, so he could make it into the race based on that ranking, should he and his team fail to come up with the necessary horsepower.

"There should be a lot more [speed] in it, but getting it out could be tricky," said crew chief Dennis Moore. "We were certainly hoping for more today [yesterday]."

Justice reigns

The Daytona 500 has seen a lot of honorary flagmen through the years. But Sunday's will be one of the most identifiable. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas will be the man waving the green.

"He has a real interest in racing," said NASCAR president Bill France, when asked about Thomas' selection. "It has nothing to do with color. Whether he's black, white or yellow, I think anytime you have the opportunity to have a Supreme Court justice, you should take it.

"He got in contact with us through a law firm in Washington, saying he'd like to do it. I think it's a compliment to the sport."

Brian France, NASCAR senior vice president, said there haven't been any studies to determine the ethnic mix of race fans, but added: "If we do our job right, everyone will be a fan."

Name that track

After 40 years, Charlotte Motor Speedway is no more. The track announced yesterday that it has sold its name and is now Lowe's Motor Speedway. Lowe's Home Improvement Co. has paid a 10-year rights fee of $35 million.

"I'm something of a traditionalist," said Dale Jarrett, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. "It's going to take me a while to get used to that. It very well could get to a point [with business names replacing location names at tracks] that there will no longer be any sense of identity."

While the deal is the first of its kind in racing -- a sport where drivers and their cars often are billboards -- it's unlikely to be the last.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., owner of the Charlotte track, operates six tracks that stage races for various stock-car and open-wheel circuits, and company officials said they expect similar naming rights contracts to be announced in the coming months at some of their other facilities.

"This is the way of sports today," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of SMI. "This opens the flood gates."

IROC switch

Al Unser Jr. has withdrawn from Friday's International Race of Champions race due to the sudden illness of his daughter Cody, 12.

Unser is at home with his daughter, who was hospitalized with an as yet unknown illness.

Replacing the series all-time race-winner is Winston Cup driver Bobby Labonte. Labonte is the seventh Cup driver in the field, joining Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jarrett, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.

IRL drivers Kenny Brack (champion) and Eddie Cheever Jr.; CART drivers Adrian Fernandez and Greg Moore; and Busch Grand National champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. complete the field.

Daytona 500

What: 41st Daytona 500, opening race of NASCAR's 1999 Winston Cup season

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Sunday, noon TV: Chs. 13, 9

Pole-sitter: Jeff Gordon

Defending champion: Dale Earnhardt

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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