Can anyone beat Junior?

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff

   Usually when NASCAR makes a stop at a particular race track, it's hard to put a finger on a clear-cut favorite. On Saturday night, you would be hard pressed to put money on anyone besides Dale Earnhardt, Junior.
   The driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet goes into the Pepsi 400 as winner of three of the last four Winston Cup restrictor-plate races. He's the defending Pepsi 400 race champion and clearly had the dominant car in this year's Daytona 500 before a blown tire damaged his machine.
   Earnhardt also won the season-opening Busch Series race at Daytona in his No. 3 Oreo Chevrolet. In the last restrictor-plate race prior to this one, at Talladega, Ala. Earnhardt led 133 of the race's 188 laps.
   Even those inside the sport, acknowledge the dominance of Earnhardt's race team at the restrictor-plate tracks. On Daytona's official website, a fan poll asked which team besides DEI has the best chance at the Pepsi 400.
   Ditto for broadcaster and occasional racer Wally Dallenbach on the MSNBC website. Dallenbach's top five picks to win this weekend are as follows - Earnhardt, his teammate Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon and Sterling Marlin.
   Given each driver's past history at the speedway, these look like pretty solid picks. Waltrip won last year's Daytona 500 and has finished second to Earnhardt in two of the last three plate races.
   Jarrett and Gordon are each four-time winners on Daytona's 2.5-mile oval. Marlin, the points leader, is coming off a last place finish at Sears Point, but Daytona may be just what the doctor ordered.
   Marlin has three wins at the "World Center of Racing" and was leading this year's Daytona 500, until the infamous red flag incident, where he climbed out of his car to pull the fender of the No. 40 Coors Dodge off the right front tire.
   We aren't talking about Darrell Waltrip's catch phrase here, but the end of Michael Chaney's four-race winning streak at Kingsport Speedway.
   Danny O'Quinn Jr. of Coeburn, Va., put an end to the streak at last Friday night by leading the 50-lap Late Model Stock feature flag-to-flag for his first victory at the 3/8-mile concrete oval this season.
   Chaney paced the 15-car field in qualifying with a fast-lap of 15.405-seconds but was relegated to a seventh-place starting position after posting the four consecutive wins, thus placing O'Quinn and Robbie Ferguson on the front row.
   Chaney was on the move early, first picking off Jeff Berry on lap 2 to take over the sixth spot, then two laps later he passed Wayne Hale in turn four to take over the fifth position. With O'Quinn, Ferguson and Kres VanDyke running nose-to-tail out front, Wade Day slipped high in turn two on lap 21 to open the door for Chaney to move into fourth place.
   The event's only caution waved on lap 33 when the lapped car of Michael Small got into Ferguson between turns one and two, resulting in both cars spinning and having to restart at the rear of the field.
   With O'Quinn comfortably riding on the point with ten laps to go in the 50-lap feature, VanDyke had a rear view mirror full of the hard-charging Chaney. Chaney pulled alongside to challenge VanDyke for the runner-up spot on lap 43 and, after running door-to-door for two circuits he completed the pass for position in turn two to set his sights on the race leader O'Quinn
   Chaney closed to the back bumper of O'Quinn's No. 01 Monte Carlo on lap 48. But the 16-year-old O'Quinn slammed the door shut and held off Chaney, VanDyke, Day and Ferguson for the victory.
   "It got close there at the end when Chaney got around VanDyke for second place and he pulled up on my rear bumper with a couple of laps to go," said O'Quinn. "He caught us there on the end, but getting around us was going to be tough because I made the car real wide those last two laps. I wasn't about to lose this race after leading from the drop of the green. I knew Chaney had won four races in a row, and I feel real fortunate to have come in here and put an end to his winning streak."
   Caleb Holman of Abingdon, Va., bolted into the lead at the drop of the green in the 30-lap Late Model Sportsman feature and never looked back in capturing his third victory this season.
   St. Paul, Va.'s Mike Mays scored his second Street Stock second win of the season. Scottie McMurray of Kingsport continues to roll along in the Charger division, capturing his sixth feature win.
   Sevierville's Marty Arender kept his nose clean as he took the victory in the 25-lap Pro Challenge feature. Blountville's Randy English recorded his first Mod Lite victory of 2002, while Dale Spencer of Jonesborough took home the Hobby Stock trophy.
   Kingsport Speedway will celebrate Independence Day with an exciting racing program on the Fourth of July. The Bailey's 100 for the Late Model Stocks ($2,000-to-win), along with a 40-lap national points event for the Pro Challenge division will highlight the night of racing.
   The track is located at 2961 North John B. Dennis Highway. For more information, call the speedway office at (423) 288-5992.
   Finally, we close this week's column with Happy 65th Birthday wishes to the greatest stock car driver of all-time Richard Petty, who was born on July 2, 1937.
   For those of you totally ignorant of NASCAR history or those who never tire of hearing about Petty's exploits, his most famous records include 200 career wins, 7 Daytona 500 wins, the most career NASCAR starts (1158), most wins in a season (27) and seven Winston Cup titles, which he shares with the late Dale Earnhardt.
   Petty is also a member of numerous racing, athletic and automotive hall of fames and his famous No. 43 is displayed in the Smithsonian Institute.
   * Special thanks to Robert Walden with the Kingsport Speedway report.