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Earnhardt finds speed just in time for 500

February 23, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

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Five drivers top 198 mph in final Daytona tune-up

RELATED: See Saturday's practice speeds

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- They had engine trouble in practice on Wednesday, and fell out of the draft. They were too tight in their qualifying race Thursday, and not as competitive as they’d hoped. For much of these Speedweeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team have fought a battle to get their car in shape to contend in the Daytona 500.

Saturday, those efforts paid off when Earnhardt Jr. posted the fastest speed of final practice  -- and indeed, the fastest speed of these Speedweeks -- for the Great American Race.

“We knew we had work to do, and we found a lot of good stuff on Friday and just confirmed it again today,” said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief. “We’re excited. We’re excited to get the 500 underway. We feel like we have a whole lot better car than we started the week with.”

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Earnhardt made 11 laps Saturday, his fastest a circuit of 198.592 mph that bettered any other speed posted this week -- including Danica Patrick's pole-winning run six days ago. Although several top drivers including Patrick, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon sat out the final session, 34 of the 43 drivers in Sunday’s starting field took part.

Prior to Saturday, Earnhardt hadn’t been much of a factor at Daytona. He wasn’t a contender to win The Sprint Unlimited exhibition last week, he posted the 19th-fastest speed in front-row qualifying the next day and placed ninth in the first of Thursday’s 150-mile qualifying Duel races. But Earnhardt participated in every practice at Speedweeks, and showed speed Friday before topping the chart in the final session before the Daytona 500.

“I think we were an average car when we were here early in the week, but we have way higher expectations than average,” Letarte said. “We can’t guarantee success, but we can guarantee no one will outwork us. We took part in every practice. As far as being on track, we were out there with them. You’re not always going to be able to turn over the right stone, but we feel like we have turned over the right ones a couple of times down here, and we have a much better can than we had earlier in the week.”

David Gilliland was second-fastest Saturday, followed by Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola. Gilliland is no stranger to solid runs at Daytona, having won a pole here with Yates Racing in 2007 and finishing third in this event two years ago with his current Front Row Motorsports team.

“Hopefully we can get a win here. I feel like we can,” Gilliland said. “I feel like our team is capable of doing it, and obviously it is 500 miles at Daytona, but it is a great feeling going into the race knowing that (car owner) Bob Jenkins and everybody have really put a lot into our program over the winter.”

Kevin Harvick, who won The Sprint Unlimited and the first Duel race on Thursday, made 10 laps in his car Saturday and placed 19th on the sheet. It was a last shakedown for Harvick, who sat out Friday’s two practices. Some others skipped the final session, believing their car was ready enough, and not wanting to risk damaging anything before the main event.

“I think the more accidents you see earlier in the week, the less people want to practice the day before the Daytona 500,” said Gordon, who will start alongside Patrick on the front row. “… We learned a lot in the 150, and we just needed to fine-tune, and we were able to do that yesterday. And so we don’t really have any reason (to go out). If there was something that popped out that we would try to do, we’d be out there today. … The thing is, unless you’re in a big pack, you’re not going to learn a whole lot more. And we don’t want to risk being in a big pack in practice. We’ll do that in the race when it really counts.”

That comes Sunday, in the biggest race of the NASCAR season. And if final practice speeds are any indication, Earnhardt’s car appears to be rounding into shape just in time.

“I think we have a car that can win the Daytona 500. Unfortunately, I think there are 20 guys who can say the same thing,” Letarte said. “What makes the Daytona 500 such a prestigious race is, you’ve got to have a good car, and you have three and a half hours to not make mistake. You have to be very efficient all day long.”

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