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Earnhardt battles the top Fords in 125-mile qualifier

by Mike Harris

AP MOTORSPORTS WRITER

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A horde of Fords vs. Dale Earnhardt's Chevrolet in a Daytona 500 qualifying race. Sounds like a fair fight to Larry McReynolds.

After all, Earnhardt has won one of the two 125-mile qualifying races in each of the past 10 years and has captured 12 of them overall.

McReynolds was Earnhardt's crew chief for part of the 1998 season and remains at Richard Childress Racing in the same role with Mike Skinner.

He is convinced the first of Thursday's 125-milers will be a preview of Sunday's main event.

"It's going to be hard to beat those Fords, especially that 88 and 28," McReynolds said, referring to Robert Yates Racing Tauruses of Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd, who already have the front row starting spots for the 500.

The qualifying races determine positions 3-30 in the Daytona 500, with the rest of the 43-car field filled by qualifying speeds from time trials and last year's team owner points.

The two rounds of time trials also set the lineups for the qualifying races, with the odd numbers on the final list in the first race and the even numbers in the second. That, for good or bad, place 1998 Daytona winner Earnhardt in the first race with Jarrett and most of the strongest Fords.

"I think the proof of the pudding will be Thursday's races," said McReynolds, who worked for Yates before moving to the Childress team.

"If we watch Earnhardt in the first 125 and he can't do nothing with those boys, it'll be bad," he said. "He's got all the heavy hitters -- Rusty (Wallace), Mark (Martin), Dale Jarrett. The only one he doesn't have in his race is Rudd and we've got him in our race. I think the first 125 is pretty much going to dictate how the rest of the weekend goes."

Fords dominated first-round time trials and the Chevrolet and Pontiac teams insist the Tauruses have an aerodynamic advantage. But the first of the week's key races -- the 25-lap Bud Shootout for last year's pole winners -- was competitive. Jarrett finished on top, with two Fords, two Chevys and one Pontiac in the top five.

Earnhardt was not in that race but was a very interested observer.

"It looks like we'll be able to draft with those guys," said Earnhardt, who is considered a master on fast, high-banked superspeedway ovals like Daytona International Speedway.

Kevin Hamlin, who switched jobs with McReynolds in 1998 and is now Earnhardt's crew chief, said his team will know more on Thursday.

"We'll let the master (Earnhardt) get out there and give us his opinion of what's going on," he said.

Whatever happens Thursday, Hamlin said the Chevrolet teams aren't going to cede anything to the Fords on Sunday.

"We're not going to throw in the towel," he said. "This is the Daytona 500. If we don't win the 125, I don't care. It's going to be disheartening to think you don't have a chance at winning it, but Sunday is still the big event. Thursday just gives us a little bit of a measuring stick on what we've got to do for Sunday."

Based on his showing so far, some are conceding the 500-mile race to Jarrett, a two-time Daytona winner and the defending Winston Cup champion. But Jarrett isn't ready to accept congratulations quite yet.

"We have a fast car, but the Daytona 500 is won by the guy who can stay in the gas the most," Jarrett said. "And that means having a great handling car."

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