Earnhardt Jr. rules in Duel

2-14-08 -- The story lines of Thursday’s Gatorade Duels at Daytona qualifying races included the usual suspects up front, Dale Earnhardt Jr. going 2-for-2 in his Hendrick Motorsports debut and Toyota scoring its first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory with Denny Hamlin.

But it was also an opportunity for the oddball team and the single-car entry to get some of the spotlight, as The Furniture Row racing team from Denver got both of its drivers into the race, and John Andretti was able to make the show for Sunday’s 50th Daytona 500.

Three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett also qualified for the race, ending what could have been a brutal disappointment if he had failed to make the field.

On the downside, two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott failed to get the Wood Brothers Ford into the race, marking the first time in the 62-year history of the team that it will not compete at Daytona - dating to the old Beach Course that preceded the opening of the Daytona International Speedway in 1959.

It also marked the end of Ken Schrader’s streak of 23 straight Daytona 500 starts.

Meanwhile, the impressive Canadian contingent of 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1997 Formula One World Champion Jacques Villeneuve and former Champ Car and IndyCar driver Patrick Carpentier both crashed out of the second race.

Earnhardt won his second straight race at Daytona this week, scoring his third Gatorade Duel victory in Thursday’s first qualifying race for Sunday’s marquee event.

When all the Hendrick Motorsports cars had engine problems in Wednesday practice, they switched engines, forcing them to start at the rear of the field.

By winning his qualifier with relative ease, Earnhardt continues to cast the role of the favorite for the Daytona 500.

“I feel like we got a shot,” Earnhardt said. “Nobody is boastful enough to come in here and claim that. I wouldn’t expect anybody to do that but I thought we had a great shot today. We’ve won some races down here so we have to be in that group (for Sunday).

“We got to remember we’re at Daytona, too. We’ve had a lot of wins here. We can’t really sing a lot of praise just yet because we’ve got a lot of racing left to do. We should be fine.”

Brian Vickers, who spun his Toyota Camry after contact with Paul Menard early in the race and had to pit for another tire issue later, finished 11th and took the final transfer position into Sunday’s race.

“I had a lot of friends out there who really helped me,” Vickers said. “It’s like I won the race. The last time I felt this good is when I won a race. Just to get the year started off right is important to me. We learned from those mistakes and it paid off.”

Kenny Wallace finished eighth and took the other transfer spot in the race, which meant that Joe Nemechek made the Daytona starting lineup based on his single-lap time trial speed last Sunday.

“I was so focused on my driving; they dropped the green flag and I almost spun out,” Wallace said. “Under green flag racing it handled so good. I’m very grateful. You get in the zone out there. You want to make sure you clear them and then slide up in front of them.

“I’m in the 50th Daytona 500 and I want to thank my brother, Mike Wallace, for spotting for me.”

While Earnhardt was one of seven drivers dropping to the rear of the field after changing engines, his drive to the front was steady if not unspectacular.

It only took Earnhardt 18 laps to drive from the rear to the front of the field when he put his Chevrolet in front ahead of Ryan Newman’s Dodge.

“This was pretty interesting with those old tires back there through the race, spinning tires and carrying on,” Earnhardt said. “I came in front of the 12 (Newman) and it must have been by inches. Old tires were fun, man. We were about wrecking back there but it was fun.

“This has to look great on TV but the car is hard to drive. It sure is a handful on the car and it reminds me a lot of the old style of race cars. I think it’s all right and so far, the car has a good grade from me.”

Reed Sorenson’s Dodge was second followed by Newman’s Dodge, Casey Mears’ Chevrolet and Carl Edwards’ Ford.

Kurt Busch’s engine blew up on the 10th lap, dropping him off the track. Busch took the former champion’s provisional starting position because he is the most recent Cup champion (2004) Busch’s seventh-place points from last season were transferred to teammate and rookie Sam Hornish Jr., the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champion.

“We’ve got the champion’s provisional to fall back on so we’re not worrying about it,” Busch said.

With three to go, Earnhardt led the field while Sorenson took second. Farther back in the pack, Vickers passed Nemechek for the final transfer position. Nemechek was safe because he was the third-fastest driver in Sunday’s qualifications so he was first in the list to make it based on time.

A.J. Allmendinger finished 13th and missed making the field.

“It pretty much (stinks),” said Allmendinger, who missed the Daytona 500 starting lineup for the second year in a row.

Hamlin blew by teammate Tony Stewart on a green-white-checkered flag restart to give Toyota its first victory in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition in the second Gatorade Duel.

It was the first time a foreign manufacturer has won a NASCAR Cup Series races since Al Keller drove a Jaguar to victory at Linden, New Jersey in 1954.

Hamlin finished 0.091 ahead of Stewart’s Toyota to lock up the victory, while Jarrett and Andretti finished ninth and 10th to take the two automatic transfer positions.

“It’s great especially with this back up engine and it’s great to be back in victory lane at Daytona and get Toyota its first win,” Hamlin said.

Jeff Gordon’s Chevrolet was third followed by Kasey Kahne’s Dodge and Martin Truex Jr.’s Chevrolet.

Jarrett, a three-time winner of the Daytona 500, will make his final start here in 20th place.

“Certainly, I wanted to be part of the 50th Daytona 500 on Sunday,” Jarrett said. “Now, we’ll go back and tune it up and get it ready on Sunday.”

Andretti was given little chance of making the field but was able to race his way into the field.

“I didn’t expect to be here,” Andretti said.

It was a clean race until the 15th lap. That’s when Villeneuve lost control of his Toyota Camry in the fourth turn. The car hooked the apron, slid up the track and crashed into Jamie McMurray’s Ford Fusion.

Dario Franchitti, Last year’s Indy 500 winner and IndyCar champion, and Stanton Barrett were also involved in the crash, ending their race.

“I’d say that’s a big setback,” Villeneuve said. “The car was really fast, it was just a bit too loose. It was one time too loose, too many.”

When Carpentier passed David Reutimann with eight laps to go, he had taken away the final transfer spot from the Michael Waltrip Racing driver, but he would make it on speed.

With three laps to go, Carpentier had lost his tires. His Dodge pushed against the high lane of the track before the tire blew up, sending it crashing into the wall. He had run a great race up to that point and making the field for the Daytona 500 was within his grasp.

“I knew the tire was going and it started to push a lot, I started to run high and was hoping it was going to last until the end but it did not,” Carpentier said. “It’s too bad because my car was so good. I had so much push I couldn’t keep up with the guys. I was hoping to do a few more laps but we’ll keep working and get them at Fontana.”

The race was red-flagged to set up a green-white-checkered finish.

“If the caution doesn’t come out, we think the outcome might have been different,” Stewart said. “But the important thing was to keep Joe Gibbs Racing 1-2 no matter what the order was. That’s what I told Denny during that red flag period. ‘One of the two of us has to win this race. If you got a run, you’ve got to go. Don’t try to help me and get yourself in a bad spot.’

When the green flag flew, Hamlin took that advice to heart and was able to pass Stewart but thwarted any attempt by Gordon to win the race.