Easy As 1-2-3 For DEI
March 2, 2001 | 4:00 P.M. EST
Stranger things have happened in the desert, however, and it’s entirely possible DEI can continue its streak of races won this season Sunday in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.
None of the three DEI drivers –- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Park or Michael Waltrip -– have a particularly strong history at the 1.5-mile LVMS oval, but emotion can sometimes carry you a long way.
Qualifying for Sunday’s event begins at 5 p.m. (ET) Friday afternoon. Ricky Rudd holds the Winston Cup qualifying record at LVMS at 172.563 mph, set last year.
Waltrip opened the season with a dramatic victory in the Daytona 500, the same race in which DEI owner Dale Earnhardt was tragically killed. Park then followed that up with a thrilling victory in Monday’s Dura-Lube 400 at Rockingham.
Whether it’s Earnhardt Jr.’s turn to drive to victory lane remains to be seen, but Park said DEI drivers have a lot of momentum right now and he hopes that wave can continue Sunday at Las Vegas.
"Las Vegas is a track where car preparation plays a key role in order to be successful, and right now, all three of our cars are being prepared very well," said Park, who’s fifth in the Winston Cup points standings after two races. "Both Michael and Dale Jr. had really strong cars at Daytona, and my car at Rockingham was tremendous.
"I know we all like going to Vegas and I think we can be successful there, too. I’d like to win another one and so would Michael, but if we can’t do that, then seeing Dale Jr. get to victory lane would be tremendous. Three in a row for DEI, wouldn’t that something? You bet it would."
Indeed. However, the best finish for a DEI driver in a Winston Cup race at Las Vegas was Park’s ninth-place run last season. He finished 16th in 1999 and failed to qualify for the race in 1998 as a rookie.
Waltrip, third in the Winston Cup points standings after two races, finished 14th in the inaugural Las Vegas event in 1998 as a member of the Wood Brothers Racing team. He finished 22nd in 1999, then 33rd in 2000. This will be his fourth start at LVMS with three different race teams.
Earnhardt Jr. turned in a solid 10th-place run at Las Vegas during his rookie Winston Cup season in 2000.
If one of DEI’s Chevrolets are to drive to victory lane Sunday afternoon, they’ll most likely be forced to contend with the Roush duo of Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. Burton is the two-time defending champion of the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400, and Martin won the inaugural Winston Cup race at Las Vegas in 1998.
Martin finished third last year behind Burton and Tony Stewart and enjoyed a tremendous amount of success in the Busch Series at Las Vegas.
"If we can run as well as we did last year, we should be contenders for the win," Martin said. "I can completely focus on the Winston Cup car this weekend since I won’t be running in the Busch race for the first time. We’ve had a lot of success in Vegas in the past three years and hopefully that will continue. We’ve got a brand new car to race this weekend that tested pretty well, so I think it will be a good weekend."
Both Burton and Martin, who figured to be contenders for the Winston Cup championship, have struggled early on. Martin is 29th in the points after two races, while Burton is 33rd.
"Jeff (Burton) deserves to have all the attention to be placed on him," said defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte. "He has won out here the past two years in the Cup car, and he has also won a Busch Series event, so I would say he has found something for that track."
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Stewart and Labonte should also be threats not only to win the pole, but the race. Labonte finished fifth in last year’s race after qualifying in the fourth position. He also won the Bud Pole in 1999 at Las Vegas.
"I’ve run well at Vegas the past couple of years with a couple of Top-5 finishes and even sat on the pole out here two years ago," Labonte said. "So when we unload Friday morning to get ready for practice and qualifying, I feel as though we are going to be in great shape.
"I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I would not bet against this team. The track in Las Vegas fits my style of driving and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens this weekend. We still have a pretty big hole to dig out of (in the points race) and we started that last weekend in Rockingham and hope to continue the job this weekend."