Earnhardt calls it `a good weekend'

Daytona 500 notebook

Crowd favorite is 29th, but accentuates positives

Newman leads rookies

Auto Racing

February 18, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. could still muster a smile late yesterday afternoon, despite enduring a Daytona 500 that would have been judged miserable by most.

"I knew that winning this race was going to be difficult," said Earnhardt, who finished 29th, 29 laps down. "But I had a good weekend."

Earnhardt, who lost his father here on the last lap of last year's 500, has become the crowd favorite. Yesterday, his every move was cheered by most of the 200,000 who packed Daytona International Speedway. And a noticeable amount of excitement seemed to go out of the race when he began having a day of misadventure.

He didn't lead a lap but was running a strong second when he cut a tire and hit the Turn 2 wall on Lap 22. He charged back from that and was running in the top 10 until suddenly sliding sideways down the frontstretch on the tri-oval grass. He had no brakes, but, like his father, emerged in control of the car when it bounced back on to the asphalt headed into Turn 1.

"Something broke, and I've got a lot of [stuff] that looks like asbestos flying around in here," he radioed his crew before stopping in the pits, where he lost 12 laps repairing the brake caliper.

"We kept coming back," he said. "The team stuck together, and we're coming out of here with a good attitude. I'll probably just remember winning that Busch race, overcoming the flat tires and being competitive with no fender. That was cool. Sliding through the infield at 160 mph with no brakes and no right rear tire. That was cool. A lot of neat things happened this weekend."

Rookie review

Ryan Newman in his Ford was the highest-finishing rookie, and, for a moment here and there, thought he could win the race.

"It wasn't as exciting as some, but it was definitely exciting for me to be able to come home in seventh," said Newman, who finished seventh. "Just to race Daytona is a dream, and to be in the top 10 is awesome."

Pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson, in his Chevrolet, had a rough day in his first Daytona 500, but finished 15th, one lap down. "It was crazy. We were caught up in the big wreck, but luckily we didn't get a lot of damage. We did get a left rear quarter panel when [Geoffrey Bodine] bumped me coming through the tri-oval and pushed the fender in on the tire and cut the tire and we spun out. That put us a lap down, and we just road until the end."

And Shawna Robinson, the second woman ever to compete in the 500, was 24th.

"We had a lot of things happen," she said. "We ran out of fuel; we broke a driveshaft. That's a big change to have to make [on the car] and get back out. We're not thrilled about our finish, but at the same time, we're a new team and we finished the Daytona 500." And to finish this 500, she said, was something. "I've never seen a 500 with so many wrecked race cars. It was kind of survival out there."

The shortest day

Driver Tony Stewart, a favorite in his Joe Gibbs-owned Pontiac to win yesterday's race, was packing for home after two laps. Running fourth, his engine blew.

"Something happened to the motor," said a downcast Stewart. "I just don't know what happened. It laid down on the start a little bit, then as the lap went on, it laid down even more. I'm just glad I didn't cause a wreck trying to get off the track.

"The hard part was that it laid down going into the banking and there was nowhere to really go, other than around the bottom of the track. I'm glad everybody got by us clean."

A disappointing finish

Veteran driver Dave Marcis, 60, was running the last race of his career and had visions of a strong finish. But on Lap 79 of the 200-lap race, Marcis' car slowed and finally stopped in Turn 4. He was pushed into the garage, where he climbed from his Chevrolet.

"When the race began, the car was great," he said. "Then it got a bunch of paper across the grill and the water temperature went up to 260 degrees and I was going along working the accelerator trying to pump cool fuel in there and keep the piston tops cool."

He said he got lucky then: A caution allowed him to pit, clean the debris from the radiator screen and bring the temperature down.

"But it never did run right after the engine got hot," said Marcis, who finished 42nd. "But it's been a great week. A great 125-miler, just overwhelming support. ... We didn't want it to end like this. We wanted to get a good run."

What they thought

Jeff Gordon on his duel with Sterling Marlin: "I should have just given up when he got beside me and still had a battle and a shot to win the thing. I hated to see that last caution. We were in perfect position to win. It was a crazy race out there."

James Ince, crew chief of the Johnny Benson Pontiac, when asked about the strangeness of the top-10 finishers: "Well, if they were looking for a joke, they got one."

Rusty Wallace on his 43rd-to-fifth-place run: "I'm happy. The rules change really helped us. We were competitive with the Chevrolets and everybody; we just didn't win, but, man, for a while there, I thought I was going to win."

Second-year driver Kurt Busch on the veterans: "A lot of guys didn't use much patience, and a whole new crop of drivers were up front just because the veterans seemed to want to go to the front and bully everybody around."

Sterling Marlin on Gordon's attempt to block him: "If I had been in his shoes, I would have tried to do the same thing. This is the Daytona 500, and you're going to try to win the thing. We both tried and our bumpers hooked and he spun and I went on."

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