DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mike Skinner's primary claim to fame in Winston Cup racing is that he's Dale Earnhardt's teammate at Richard Childress Racing.
If crew chief Larry McReynolds is right, though, Skinner will be recognized for other reasons before the 1999 season is over.
Skinner starts on the outside pole in today's second Twin 125-mile qualifying race, and, based on practice, he's one of the drivers to watch. The races will determine positions No. 3 through 30 for Sunday's 41st Daytona 500.
"The last time I remember feeling the fire in my belly about a race team like I do about this one probably was '94 with Ernie (Irvan) in the 28 car," McReynolds said. "You knew everybody was pulling the same rope and pulling in the same direction. That's what we've got."
Skinner posted the fourth-fastest speed (194.536 mph) in 500 pole qualifying last Saturday, and he won the Bud Shootout qualifying race on Sunday.
McReynolds says his crew has continued to work on the No. 31 Lowe's-sponsored Chevy to make it work even better in the draft.
"You can never get perfect at this track," McReynolds said. "I look over there at the 24 car (Jeff Gordon's), and you don't see it covered up very often. There's a message there."
Skinner, 41 years old, enters his third full-time season with Childress. After missing three races early last year with injuries, Skinner improved 15 positions in the points to 21st over the final 20 races.
The turnabout must be at least partly credited to Childress' decision last June to switch McReynolds and Kevin Hamlin as crew chiefs for Earnhardt and Skinner.
McReynolds had been extremely successful at Yates Racing with drivers Davey Allison and Irvan, and he won the Daytona 500 with Earnhardt last year. But Earnhardt's performance sagged after Daytona, and the driver and crew chief never really did click.
Now, Skinner has a legitimate chance in the 500.
"We're going to go more on the conservative side for the 125s and get a decent starting spot," Skinner said. "I really want to race that car in the 500. We don't want to tear up our good stuff in the 125 and have to race a backup car."
Added McReynolds, "I'd like to think we're one of the favorites for Sunday, but hopefully they'll think of us as a dark horse and we'll surprise them, and gamblers will make money on us."
Gordon and rookie Tony Stewart will start on the pole positions in the first and second race, respectively. The two have already secured the front-row starting spots for the 500.
Earnhardt, who has been fast in practice, starts fifth in the second 125 and comes in with a phenomenal nine-year winning streak in the Twins. The first Twin 125 is scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m, and a crowd of more than 100,000 is expected.
JAB AT BRUTON: In announcing that he is stepping back from his day-to-day responsibilities Wednesday, NASCAR president Bill France allowed himself to get a little giddy.
Normally guarded in his comments to the media, France took a few digs at race track magnate Bruton Smith, who sold the naming rights of Charlotte Motor Speedway to Lowe's Improvement Warehouse for $35 million over 10 years this week.
"If I was Mike (Helton, NASCAR's new CEO), what I'd be looking at is getting some more money there for the purses," France cracked. "They've got a good amount of money there for the purse."
France, whose family owns several racetracks himself through International Speedway Corporation, suggested that Charlotte Motor Speedway has lost some of its prestige.
"It's undisputed now as far as Daytona being the facility," he said. "It's Daytona and Indianapolis now. Anybody else that was there, they've thrown in the towel."
France said no name sponsor will be sought for Daytona.
"Daytona's kind of a unique name," France said. "I think you would say it's in the category of ... do you change the name of the Kentucky Derby? Do you change the name of the Masters?"
IROC LINEUP SET: Dale Jarrett drew the pole position for Friday's IROC race. Bobby Labonte, who is subbing for Al Unser Jr., will start on the outside pole.
Labonte will run the full four-race series for Unser, who had to withdraw because his 12-year-old daughter, Cody, is hospitalized with a spinal inflammation.
The race will mark the first time that seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt will race against his son, Dale Jr., on U.S. soil. They competed against each other in an exhibition race in Japan last November.
Dale Jr., the defending Busch Series champion, starts fourth, while his dad starts sixth. The field also includes Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, and Jeff Burton from Winston Cup; Adrian Fernandez and Greg Moore from CART; and Eddie Cheever and Kenny Brack from the IRL.
Gordon and Martin will start on the last row.
ETC., ETC.: Car owner Junie Donlavey has replaced rookie Mike Harmon with veteran Mike Wallace. Donlavey blamed the loss of sponsorship from Big Daddy's Barbecue. "When we had Big Daddy's, we had money to bring a (rookie) along," Donlavey said. "It looks like Big Daddy's has gone down the drain. So we felt like this is a pretty big race and we better do something else, so we gave him the weekend off."