Originally created 02/12/99

Earnhardt extends streak



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Nothing lasts forever. But Dale Earnhardt is pushing the envelope in the Gatorade Twin 125s.

The seven-time Winston Cup champion extended one of racing's most amazing streaks, and Bobby Labonte reestablished himself as a Daytona 500 favorite, as each drove to victory in the traditional qualifiers Thursday before a sun-splashed crowd estimated at 125,000.

"Guess who?" Earnhardt blurted upon his arrival in the press box after his 10th straight Twin 125s win, an accomplish that gave him a '90s sweep in the event.

"You don't know how you do it, but all I can say is I love Daytona, and I've got a good race team," Earnhardt said. "It's just worked out. I come back every year thinking, will this be the year I lose a qualifying race? And I go out and win it again. I can't explain it."

Dale Jarrett, who finished third in the second race behind Earnhardt and Jeremy Mayfield, said the feat can't be explained.

"I've never won 10 in a row of anything, so I don't know what that would be like," he said. "It's phenomenal to think somebody could come in here and win 10 of these races in a row.

Earnhardt earned his 32nd Daytona victory, easily a record, and secured a second-row starting spot in Sunday's Daytona 500 -- a race he finally won in his 20th try last year. The Twin 125s win was his 12th in 17 years.

Looking like the old "Intimidator" rather than the driver who has won only one of his last 82 points races, Earnhardt, 47, passed rookie Tony Stewart for the lead on the 8th lap and led the final 43 laps.

Stewart, who has already secured the outside pole position for the 500, kept Earnhardt from passing on Lap 7 by forcing him down onto the grass on the backstretch. But Earnhardt got by on the front straightaway the next time around.

When Earnhardt moved ahead, Stewart lost the lead draft and fell back about nine spots. He eventually caught back up to the leaders and finished sixth.

That wasn't bad, given that few drivers get away with running Earnhardt off the track without suffering more severe consequences.

"If that had been the last lap, he probably would have gotten spun around," Earnhardt said. "But it was the seventh lap of a qualifying race.

"He's a good little racer. He's got a good race car. He'll learn."

Earnhardt held off a late challenge by Ford drivers Mayfield and Jarrett and drove his Chevy to a .251-second victory over Mayfield. Wallace was fourth in a a Ford, and Earnhardt's teammate, Mike Skinner, was fifth in a Chevy.

The win was Earnhardt's first in any NASCAR race since his dramatic Daytona 500 victory, which he celebrated by laying down "doughnuts" across the speedway logo on the infield grass.

"The car ran just flawlessly," Earnhardt said. "We didn't qualify as fast as we wanted to (10th), but we got in the race, and the car was just perfect.

"We were confident all week. A lot of people thought we were too confident with us not practicing more than we did. But we knew we had a good car."

Labonte, a Daytona 500 favorite coming into Speedweeks, showed that his 19th-best qualifying effort can be dismissed. He powered his Joe Gibbs-owned Pontiac past Jeff Gordon's Chevy with 12 laps to go, then beat the two-time defending Winston Cup champion by .163 seconds.

Jeff Burton finished third in a Ford, Ken Schrader fourth in a Chevy and Mark Martin fifth in a Ford.

"Basically, we threw the qualifying setup out," Labonte said, as his 4-year-old son, Tyler, sat patiently on his lap. "I think most everybody else built new cars, and that's why we were a little behind in qualifying."

Labonte drove the same car -- nicknamed Madison, after his baby daughter -- that he piloted to victory last year in the DieHard 500 at Talladega and runnerup finishes in the Daytona 500 and Pepsi 400.

Although Labonte has only recently become a force at Daytona, the Gibbs team has been strong here almost since its inception in 1992. Jarrett was the original driver, and he drove a Gibbs-owned Chevy to victory in the 1993 Daytona 500.

"It's no surprise they're good," Earnhardt said.

Thursday's races determined positions No. 3 through 30 for the 500. The final two "transfer spots" were earned by Ricky Rudd in the first race and Geoffrey Bodine in the second.

Six additional drivers made the 43-car field on qualifying times, and seven got in with provisional starting spots.

Some "name" drivers didn't make the race, including Morgan Shepherd, Dick Trickle, Steve Grissom, Dave Green, Jeff Green and rookie Buckshot Jones.