Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Brad Keselowski walk through the garage area during a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto racing practice Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Saturday, February 23, 2013 1:53 pm
Earnhardt tops final practice for Daytona 500
By MARK LONGAP Sports Writer
Earnhardt topped the speed chart for the final practice session before Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.
The 2004 Daytona 500 champion turned the fast lap by averaging 198.592 mph around the 2 1/2 -mile superspeedway. David Gilliland was second, followed by Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola.
Pole-sitter Danica Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart were among 10 drivers who skipped the 1 1/2 -hour final tuneup. Patrick is trying to become the first driver win the Daytona 500 from the pole since Dale Jarrett in 2000. Only nine drivers have accomplished the feat in 54 years.
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, 2010 Daytona 500 champ Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Terry Labonte and Joe Nemechek also sat out the session. So did Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.
"We don't have any plans to go out," Gordon said. "We feel like this entire week we have been able to learn everything we need to get prepared for the race tomorrow. ... We've got a great race car. We are excited. We've got a great opportunity here."
Before Saturday, Earnhardt had done little during Speedweeks. He finished eighth in the Sprint Unlimited and ninth in his qualifying race. He will start 19th in the "Great American Race," his lowest opening spot in 14 years at NASCAR's premier event.
His speed in the final practice had to boost the team's confidence.
Almirola, however, posted the best 10-lap average. He averaged 196.195 mph over 10 laps on new tires. Earnhardt was sixth on that chart.
"We are excited about this weekend and feel like we have a good car and got it driving good in that last practice session," Almirola said.
The final session involved little bump-drafting and even less side-by-side action - no doubt because teams were leery of wrecking race cars about 24 hours before the Daytona 500.
Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski provided the most action when he hit a bird.
"I killed a Tweetie bird," said Keselowski, one of auto racing's top Tweeters.
Keselowski was 17th in the final practice.
"This is our 500 engine, so trying to get an idea of how it's going to perform," he said. "My car is really good. Definitely faster than what it was, so that's good, right? I'm definitely optimistic."
Of the teams that didn't practice, most of them valued keeping their car intact over incremental gains that could be found so late in Speedweeks.
Patrick, Stewart, Gordon and the Gibbs cars have been some of the fastest all week.