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Waltrip and Earnhardt Up Front Again at Daytona
Feb 17, 3:18 PM (ET)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Reports of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team's demise at Daytona may have been a bit premature.

Michael Waltrip passed DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the outside in the final straightaway Thursday to win the first of two 150-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500.

"I plan out moves like that all the time and they never work," said two-time Daytona winner Waltrip, who won by .030 seconds - about half a car length. "After practice yesterday, I knew we'd be a force in the 150 and the Daytona 500."

A lot of other people weren't so sure after Earnhardt appeared down on power in the non-points Budweiser Shootout and practice and Waltrip also seemed to be struggling. Earnhardt, the defending Daytona winner, conceded that the team hadn't been as dominant.

"It just seems to go in cycles," Earnhardt said. "We had our run and we've all known over the last couple of years they've been closing the gap. Yet we ain't falling off to the point when we can't compete. Everybody is working hard to catch us, and eventually they will."

While Earnhardt fought an ill-handling car for much of Thursday's 60-lap race, Waltrip moved up among the leaders and led midway through the race.

"Just to be able to finish second, I feel lucky," Earnhardt said. "He (Waltrip) did what he had to do. He did the right moves. "

Mike Skinner, now a regular in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck series and planning to drive a handful of Nextel Cup races for Bill Davis Racing, led after the third caution flag of the race. He appeared on the way to victory until the DEI cars ganged up on him at the end.

Skinner, who aleady was guaranteed a starting spot in Sunday's 43-car field thanks to his qualifying speed in time trials last Sunday, wound up third, followed by Ryan Newman, Ricky Rudd, defending Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch and two-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon.

A rule change this year guaranteed the top 35 teams in car owner points starting spots in the race field. Four more drivers made it on speed and the final four positions were up for grabs Thursday - two in each race.

Kenny Wallace finished 10th, putting him in the main event. Kerry Earnhardt, Dale's older half-brother, was 11th but had to await results of the second race to know if he made Sunday's lineup.
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