DEI dominates Sprint Cup qualifying
By Mark Long
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. ó Although Dale Earnhardt Inc. might not be a championship contender, it showed Friday it still can be a force at Daytona International Speedway.
DEI swept the front row in qualifying for tonight’s Coke Zero 400 and ended up with three drivers in the top eight positions.
Paul Menard won the pole when he covered the 21/2-mile superspeedway with a fast lap of 185.916 mph, just ahead of teammate Mark Martin. Rookie Regan Smith was eighth.
DEI’s other driver, Martin Truex Jr., was well back in 35th. He was driving a backup car after his primary car failed inspection Thursday and was seized by NASCAR.
Truex’s setback ó he could be docked points for an illegal body modification ó combined with Martin’s Friday announcement that he was moving to Hendrick Motorsports gave DEI a rough start to the weekend. But the team rebounded with its strongest qualifying effort of the season.
“We did our homework,” Menard said. “We’ve made horsepower gains.”
Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified third, followed by Joe Nemechek and Johnny Sauter. Series points leader Kyle Busch was ninth.
With 45 drivers trying to make the 43-car field, Scott Riggs and J.J. Yeley were the only two who failed to make the race. Yeley’s failure came a week after a season-best, third-place finish in New Hampshire.
Boris Said, meanwhile, may have gotten some redemption in making the field. Said was the provisional pole-sitter here during qualifying last July but missed the race when rain washed out part of time trials and the field was set based on points.
“I was so nervous about it,” Said said after qualifying seventh. “We’ve been snake-bit so much by weather with our small team. It’s just the bad luck of Mother Nature.”
Although qualifying typically means little at Daytona, where restrictor-plate racing leads to tightly packed groups of cars vying for position and offers just about anyone a chance to win, it could indicate a possible turnaround for DEI ó at least at NASCAR’s most famous track.
The four DEI cars finished 20th, 22nd, 31st and 37th in February’s Daytona 500. It was the start of a struggling season in which the team is having sponsorship woes and only Truex has a shot at making the Chase for the championship ó and his bid will likely be set back by a NASCAR fine next week.
The drivers credited the fast qualifying times with better engines from the motor-building partnership between DEI and Richard Childress Racing.
“A lot of times you don’t put a whole lot of importance on qualifying, but what this says here to me today is we have really great engines and kudos to the Earnhardt-Childress for the gains that they’ve made since February here,” Martin said.
The Childress cars weren’t as fortunate Friday. Kevin Harvick (14th) was the highest qualifier of the three, followed by Jeff Burton (23rd) and Clint Bowyer (25th).
DEI was considerably better, and even Earnhardt Jr. was impressed.
“It’s tough to field four teams for any organization and even tougher for DEI and the situation they’re in, we’re all in really, with the economy,” said Earnhardt, whose stepmother, Teresa, owns the team founded by his late father. “They’re stretching the buck. They’re doing a great job, really, financially, budgeting themselves to be able to compete like they are. I’m not really surprised, but it is nice to see.”
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