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Daytona Favorites Hit With Bad Luck

February 17, 2002

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Tony Stewart never had a chance. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick had their work cut out for them.

Early problems sabotaged three of the favorites Sunday in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Stewart was knocked out of the biggest race of the year on the second lap when the engine blew on his Pontiac.

Earnhardt Jr., running second at the time, appeared to run over debris that flew out from beneath teammate Michael Waltrip’s car on lap 22. It shredded his right front tire and damaged the fender.

Harvick also suffered front-end damage in a pit road collision with Mike Skinner when the cars went in for service after Earnhardt Jr. brought out the caution.

Harvick was coming out of his stall as Skinner was trying to pull into his, causing Harvick’s Chevrolet to hit the back of Skinner and crumple the sheet metal.

Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. pitted four times each under the yellow flag to work on the damage, then quickly climbed back into the Top 10.

Stewart never had that opportunity. He was running in fourth place when the motor blew and he fell off the pace. He quickly radioed the bad news to his crew.

``We’re done,″ he said. ``It’s junk.″

Stewart had one of the strongest cars at Daytona all of Speedweeks, winning a non-points race and finishing second in a qualifying race in his Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac.

And he was on a streak, winning the International Race of Champions event in a different car.

He was confident he could win the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race, and start the bid for his first championship on a high note.

``Whatever happened was a freak deal,″ he said. ``It laid down on the start a little bit, then as the lap went on, it laid down even more.″

Because of rain on Saturday, the final two Winston Cup practices were canceled and Stewart never got his car onto the track for a final dry-run. Crew chief Greg Zipadelli speculated any engine problems likely would have been discovered.

``Yeah, we probably would have found something, but everybody’s in the same boat,″ he said. ``We had a great race car, Tony’s spirits have been up and the whole race team was looking forward to coming here and winning our first Daytona 500.″

Stewart, runner-up to Jeff Gordon in the Winston Cup standings last season, had a good car here last year but finished 36th after an accident sent his Pontiac flipping at least twice down the backstretch.

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