Gordon, Waltrip 1st home in Twins

They'll start 3rd, 4th in Daytona 500 field

Auto Racing

February 15, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Michael Waltrip kept his eyes on his rearview mirror, and what he saw on the last lap was a big, bad orange car on his bumper, with a devilish Tony Stewart behind the wheel.

Stewart, who had challenged much of the afternoon, had his foot down. He was coming fast through the last turn, with every intention of gobbling up Waltrip for the lead.

"But his car came alive at the end," Stewart said goodnaturedly.

Waltrip wiggled the tail of his NAPA Chevrolet into Stewart's path for a major-league block that put Waltrip in victory lane in his half of the Gatorade Twin 125-mile qualifying races for Sunday's Daytona 500.

"I won because I had a good car," Waltrip said. "But to win this race Sunday, you're going to have to be able to look in the mirror and drive your car."

Jeff Gordon took the lead on the first lap of the first Twin and never gave it up, as another tiger, Dale Earnhardt Jr., raged on his back bumper.

The two races set the field for Sunday's race. Rookie Jimmie Johnson, who won the pole position on Saturday, and second-year driver Kevin Harvick, who earned the outside pole, will lead the field to the 12:15 p.m. start in their Chevrolets, with Gordon and Waltrip, the defending 500 winner, starting third and fourth, respectively.

Only two Fords made the top 20 starting positions, despite the much-debated rule change that cut a quarter-inch off the Ford's rear spoiler, which was supposed to give it more speed. The top 20 starters also included 12 Chevys, three Dodges and three Pontiacs.

Waltrip said before the Twins that he "had a horse" of a race car, and the way he outdueled Stewart's Pontiac demonstrated that.

"I didn't need this victory for my confidence," said Waltrip, who not only won here last year, but also finished second on the 2.5-mile speedway in the Pepsi 400 last July.

The second race looked like the 500 of a year ago. Lap after lap, cars ran side by side. If a car got stuck in the middle, it was shuffled to the back and had to work its way back toward the front. The first Twin was totally different.

Gordon and four other cars got an early breakaway and attempted to maintain the spacing to better their odds of winning.

"With the way the rules are, you just have to look in your mirror," Gordon said, referring to car alterations that restrict speeds. "I saw there were four cars behind me and figured everyone would like it to come down to us five. For a while, we just rode."

With 10 laps to go, Earnhardt started worrying Gordon - trying to soften him up, trying to push him into a mistake.

"It's real, real easy to lead," said Earnhardt. "You really have to make a huge mistake or misjudgment to lose the lead. And there you are, in second, trying to figure something out.

"Today, I had [Ken] Schrader behind me and he's got the 5 [Terry Labonte] behind him and you guess Terry is going to try to help [Gordon]. You can't do nothing. You sit there trying to figure it out, and some guy running fifth is going to screw it up for everyone - except himself - and I'm just thinking about myself."

After the two races, opinions varied on what these less than identical Twins meant for the 500.

Schrader, who finished third, and Earnhardt agreed that it's tough to make moves, and that means everyone tends to get caught in a waiting game that comes down to the last lap. Then, said Schrader, "It's like a covey of quail - you don't know what's going to happen."

Asked if that means sports fans can watch the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball showdown between top-ranked Duke and No. 3 Maryland before turning on the race without missing anything, Earnhardt bobbed his head.

"Where's Maryland ranked?" he asked. "That probably makes a difference."

But Waltrip and Stewart saw it totally differently.

"Who said it was easy [leading]?" Waltrip said. "I didn't get the memo. That was the hardest I've ever driven in those last 10 laps. I was just lucky I was able to block them off."

From Stewart's perspective, the combining of the Twin fields in the 500 will make all the difference and create a good race.

"I'm concerned the media is going to portray the race as one in which you can't pass the leader," he said. "I don't think that's the way it will be. I think with the combined fields you're going to have more strong cars that will be able to get together to create the needed momentum to make passes on the leader. I think we'll have two-wide passing most of the day."

NOTES: In the first Twin, Gordon averaged 183.674 mph to win by 0.162 of a second. There were no caution flags. ... In the second race, Waltrip averaged 131.965 mph for a 0.094-second victory. The race was slowed by two yellow caution flags for 13 laps, and there were three lead changes. ... A year ago in the Twins, a total of 15 drivers exchanged the lead 21 times.

Daytona 500 lineup

1. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 185.831 mph.

2. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 185.770.

3. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 1st/125 No.1.

4. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 1st/125 No. 2.

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