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Crew sets Earnhardt up for one more pole

Dale Earnhardt is at a point in his career where he doesn't have to do the grunt work anymore. He can, like he did during the Richard Childress team's test session at Daytona International Speedway in May, take the week off and slip off to some undisclosed location.

"Where I was is a secret," he said, grinning.

A seven-time Winston Cup series champion, Earnhardt's primary job is to show up at the track on time and get the most out of the preparation of his crew. And who can knock him for it, especially after Thursday when he took a Chevy Monte Carlo that was tested by veteran driver Dave Marcis and stuck it on the pole for Saturday's Pepsi 400.

He locked down the top position with a run of 191.355 mph _ the only driver to top the 191 mph mark on a scorcher of a day. Afterward, he gladly gave credit where credit was due.

"It all paid off thanks to Dave and his hard work and all the guys back in the engine shop," Earnhardt said. "I got to hand it to them. They did a good job testing it, and I think they just duplicated everything they did in testing."

The Pepsi 400 pole is another feat to add to Earnhardt's already hefty list of accomplishments. With it, he becomes the third driver to win consecutive Pepsi 400 poles, joining Cale Yarborough and Sterling Marlin.

Thanks to Marcis, it came about with little pole-day effort. Earnhardt said the team basically unloaded the car, ran six hard laps and then parked it until qualifying.

"I knew we had a good race car," said Earnhardt, who has won more races at this 2.5-mile superspeedway than anyone else. "It's the car we wrecked at Talladega. We put a new body on it and came down here with it. It's run well, so we're looking forward to Saturday."

Marlin, the two-time Daytona 500 king, nearly beat Earnhardt out of the pole. His run of 190.718 mph was less than 1 mph slower than Earnhardt's, putting him on the outside of Row 1.

"I thought we could run a little quicker," Marlin said. "We were a little quicker in practice, but we had a little help drafting."

If you were driving a Chevy on Thursday like Earnhardt and Marlin, chances are you were plenty quick enough. Monte Carlos laid down the five fastest speeds.

Behind Earnhardt and Marlin are Chevy mates Jeff Gordon (190.630 mph), Bobby Labonte (190.517 mph) and rookie Robert Pressley (190.508 mph). Ford drivers Todd Bodine (190.118 mph) and Dale Jarrett (190.078 mph) are next, taking the sixth and seventh spots, respectively, followed by Michael Waltrip (189.817 mph) in a Pontiac.

"Things obviously are still a little lopsided," Bodine said of the competitiveness between Fords and Chevys, "but hopefully things will be a little different in the race on Saturday."

That may be more than just wishful thinking on Bodine's part. While the emphasis is on speed during the Daytona 500, several drivers said having a smooth-riding car is the key here in July.

For proof, they point to the fact that only four drivers have won the two Daytona races in the same year, the last being Bobby Allison in 1982.

"We come in February and the track is one way and you approach the race one way," said Kyle Petty. "Then, you come back five months later, it's slick, it's a handling track and nobody really cares how fast they run. A lot of times, guys don't even bring their February cars. It's a totally different place in the summer."

Added Bodine "At Daytona in July, you have to handle. It's not strictly horsepower or straightaway speed."

That's probably good news for Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Ken Schrader, Rusty Wallace and Ted Musgrave, who had surprisingly slow runs Thursday and may re-qualify today.