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Confusion crosses yellow line

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s peers do not suggest he cheated when he dipped below the yellow line with three laps remaining in his Aaron's 499 victory at Talladega on April 6. But they wondered aloud this week how NASCAR could have decided not to black flag him for violating what was once a sternly punished infraction.

Whether Earnhardt should have been penalized for dropping his left tires below the inner ring, or Matt Kenseth, whom he passed, should have been penalized for making a move down the track to block him, something should have been done, drivers said.

Because nothing was, drivers aren't sure what will happen the next time someone ventures into illegal territory.

"I was pretty clear on (the rule) before Talladega," Jeff Gordon said. "And now I'm pretty confused by it."

Kevin Harvick said he doesn't blame Earnhardt for making a bold move and doesn't begrudge his favorable nonruling.

"If it comes down to the last few laps," he said, "you have to do what you have to do and let the cards fall where they may."

The issue was revisited this week because Talladega and Daytona International Speedway are the only tracks to use the yellow-line rule since its inception in 2001.

Since then, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Sterling Marlin have crossed the line and been penalized.

Kyle Petty said the only thing that would prevent line-crossing is building a wall along the inside edge of the track. Since that would be suicidal, the next-best option would be to abolish the rule.

"You've got grass," he said. "Nobody is going into the grass because you can't get back to get in line, so just take it out.

"I understand it's a safety issue, believe me, but (the rule) did change the way we run restrictor-plate races. Sometimes you drop a pebble in the water and you create ripples. They dropped a boulder in this one and it created a lot of different issues."

SPEED IS DECEIVING: Marlin was fastest in the final practice session with a lap of 187.488, but downplayed the accomplishment. With cars drafting in long lines, he said, those in front and behind are as important to going fast as the engine.

"It's the draft," he said. "It's just who you're with."

Proving Marlin's point, rookie Greg Biffle was second on the speed chart, followed by several drivers who qualified poorly: Jeff Green, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd.

ENGINE WOES: Petty said bad engines are to blame for Petty Enterprises' poor showing in qualifying. Drivers Christian Fittipaldi and Shane Hmiel failed to make the race, and Petty used a provisional to get in the 43-car field.

"Our engines didn't run from the time we got down here," Petty said. "We were put in this position for a couple of different reasons. I know the reason and that's all that really matters."

Petty, who runs the family-owned team, said he planned to stick with independent engine builder Mike Egge.

PIT STOPS: Of the 89 races held at Daytona, 26 have been won from the front row, 13 each from the first and second positions. The most recent driver to win from the pole was Dale Jarrett in the 2000 Daytona 500. Veterans Wallace, Rudd, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin never have won at Daytona.

_ BRANT JAMES, JOANNE KORTH

Up next:CASHING IN

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