BY MIKE HARRIS
The Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It doesn't take any inside info to know Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip are the favorites for tonight's Pepsi 400.
The Dale Earnhardt Inc., teammates one or the other, or both have been dominating the races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway since 2001.
The DEI drivers have won eight of the last 10 races on the two tracks where NASCAR requires teams use a carburetor restrictor plate to keep the cars under 200 mph.
DEI does not deny that it puts extra effort into developing its cars and engines for the plate races.
"You know a lot of it, as far as my car and how well we run it (here), comes down to having the right engine program," Earnhardt said. "We spend a lot of money on the bodies, too. But the total package is everything, every single thing, including the driver."
Although the third-generation NASCAR star has won only one Winston Cup race on the 2 1/2-mile Daytona oval, his ability is unquestioned on the big tracks where the plates sap horsepower and turn races into a giant, 190-mph traffic jam.
His late father was usually the man to beat in the plate races, winning a record 11 of them before his death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Seemingly inheriting from his father the ability to weave through huge drafts with uncanny ease, Junior said, "I love plate racing. I can't wait to get out there and draft."
Little E has won five of the last eight plate races the summer race here in 2001 and four straight on Talladega's 2.66-mile oval. Only misfortune at Daytona pit lane, tire and mechanical problems have kept him from adding to that total.
If Junior falters under the lights, Waltrip likely will take advantage.
He did it in February in the Daytona 500, moving to the front when Earnhardt the heavy favorite and early leader lost two laps with an alternator failure. Earnhardt gained back one of the laps and seemed destined to challenge for the win if rain had not shortened the race, giving Waltrip the victory.
It was the third win of Waltrip's career, all at Daytona. He beat Junior to the checkered flag in the 2001 Daytona 500 and won again last July. If he wins tonight, it would match Cale Yarborough's record of three straight Daytona wins in 1967-68.
Qualifying was not indicative of what is expected in the 160-lap race, with Earnhardt and Waltrip starting side-by-side in the third row of the 43-car field. Pole-winner Steve Park and Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick will start from the front row, while Jeff Gordon and Sterling Marlin will also start ahead of the DEI drivers.
It would seem he and Waltrip would work together in the draft to get to the front, but Earnhardt isn't so sure.
"We have a hard time trying to work our way to the front together, so what we do is try to find our way there separately. ... We just have kind of an understanding and we'll help each other out if we can," Earnhardt said.
Part of the DEI dominance at the two big tracks is attitude.
"We're just confident," Waltrip said. "When I get in this car, it fits perfect and feels great. I go out on the racetrack and I know that I know what to do in order to get the thing towards the front."
Despite the record and the confident words by the DEI duo, Gordon, a four-time plate race winner and four-time series champion, said they can be beaten.
"I've felt like I've had good enough cars to win the last three or four restrictor plate races, but we haven't pulled it off," Gordon said. "I haven't seen anything, especially the last couple of races, that they have something that can't be beat.
"They're just smart. They work together, do their job and hit it in all the areas that they need to, whether it be making sure that car gets out front after a pit stop or whatever."
As big as winning Saturday night's race would be for Gordon or Earnhardt, it's a virtual must that they finish and pile up points.
Both are chasing Matt Kenseth in the championship race, with Gordon 174 behind the leader and Earnhardt just two points behind Gordon.
Both came in ahead of 14th-place Kenseth two weeks ago on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., with Gordon second to unrelated Robby Gordon and Earnhardt 11th, a career-best on a road course.
"We got through (Sonoma) and I felt it was a remarkable day for us," Earnhardt said. "I feel like it's all downhill and I can start to chip away at Matt's lead and start to put up some impressive numbers."
Kenseth was forced to use a provisional to start 37th.
Kenseth, who led the series with five victories in 2002, has only one win this season, and that came in Las Vegas in the third of 16 races.