Earnhardt's two-footed technique steps it up

But latest victory raises his uneasiness over 500

Daytona notebook

February 16, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s right foot was getting hot. Really hot. And he started crunching his toes up and moving his foot around to give it some relief from the floorboards during the Koolerz 300 Busch Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

"That's how I figured out how to get my car back to 100 percent throttle," he said, after winning the race. "My throttle was only operating at 90 percent. I knew it because Michael [Waltrip] kept pulling up to my bumper after the pit stop for the lead and I discovered if I pressed the top of the gas pedal, it solved the problem."

So Earnhardt propped his right foot on his left, averaged 143.770 mph and won, relatively easily, in his No. 8 Chevrolet that he co-owns with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.

"I think this race will be a preview for the Daytona 500," said Matt Kenseth, who finished second in a race that finished under caution. "It will be single file, with the top four or five cars content to stay in line."

Earnhardt has swept the three big races leading up to today's Daytona 500 -- the Budweiser Shootout, one of the 125-mile qualifying races and, now, the Busch race. Earnhardt's father, the late seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, did it three times (1986, 1991 and 1993) and Bobby Allison did it once (1988).

But no one has swept all four.

"I get a little more worried about the 500 every time I win another race here, because no one has ever won them all," Earnhardt said. "It's kind of like playing the odds and I don't want to think about it. I could stand to be the favorite for the championship late in the season, though. I think we're going to have a really fine year."

But the year begins with the 500, and Earnhardt is definitely the driver others think they will have to beat.

"You can see it on the racetrack," said RCR driver Kevin Harvick, who finished third.

"The only way to pass in the outside lane is to get five or six guys to go with you. And the only way to do that is paint the No. 8 on your racecar. Everyone thinks he is fast and everyone is willing to go with him.

"I got a taste of that in the 300, when I was in the back. Because I led 50-plus laps early, other drivers thought I had a fast car and were willing to go outside with me and we were able to get back to the front.

"But if you don't have those five or six cars, you might as well stay in line because, on the outside, you're just going to go backward -- and that's how it's going to be in the 500, too."

RCR drivers irked

On Thursday, Earnhardt said that if the Daytona 500 comes down to a tag-team match between him and teammate Michael Waltrip, and Richard Childress Racing drivers Jeff Green, Robbie Gordon and Harvick, he and Waltrip would "whup 'em!"

The reason, Earnhardt said, was that the RCR drivers don't know how to work together and don't appreciate the opportunities Childress has given them.

Yesterday, Harvick took issue with the statement.

"We directly appreciate everything Richard has done for us," Harvick said. "Richard Childress made RCR what it is today and Dale Earnhardt made DEI what it is because he was at RCR with Richard Childress. We all understand that. We all respect that. We all have very strong relationships with Richard, and that's the way it is."

For his part, Earnhardt didn't change what he said, but he did back off a little.

"I didn't mean to [tick] 'em off," he said. "I ran my mouth too much. I just meant, if Michael and me team up, everyone else will battle for third. ... I didn't upset Richard too much, and he was the only one I really cared about."

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