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Rodman's notebook: Waltrip strong in Duel; Hmiel plans visit

February 17, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Waltrip strong in Duel; Hmiel plans visit to track; rookie classes announced

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- By the time two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip cinched up his belts to compete in the second Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway, he already knew he was a guaranteed starter for the Daytona 500.

But Waltrip, who's semi-retired as an active driver but is no less aggressive -- he's racing in all three NASCAR national series races this weekend -- knew only one way to compete in his Duel. And hard-core racing earned him a third-place finish and the eighth starting position for his 25th Great American Race.

"It's just another page in the history of Daytona. ... I've seen a little bit of everything. This is another example of that."

--MICHAEL WALTRIP

"Everybody said it was better to be in the second [qualifying] race because you knew what you had to do," Waltrip said. "I was determined I wanted to finish up front. I didn't want to just ride around. I wasn't going to do that. My car is fast, has a cool paint scheme on it. I'm proud my team was able to give me a car I could do that with."

Waltrip started 11th of 24 cars in the second Duel, but was up to sixth after one lap, and working with one of his drivers, David Reutimann in one of the infamous two-car tandem drafts that have become the norm this Speedweeks.

At times, Waltrip fell back nearly to 20th, but was always in a position to navigate back to the front; after the last restart with three laps to go he was perfectly positioned, in the top-five with Kyle Busch on his bumper.

"At the end, we choreographed that a little bit," Waltrip said. "Kyle said to get over a little bit and he would push me. Darn, on the restart, I had a run and I was pushing. I know I could have got beside those two [Richard Childress Racing cars, which finished 1-2]. I just felt like it wasn't the right thing to do."

When he decided he wanted to go, he and Busch were unable to make up any ground on race winner Jeff Burton and teammate Clint Bowyer, who finished in a dead heat. The experience wasn't wasted on Waltrip, who'll start his 25th consecutive Daytona 500 Sunday -- a race he won in 2001 and 2003.

"I liked running up there, seeing what it's going to take to win," Waltrip said. "I got a good lesson."

He's had plenty of those in 24 years, from qualifying "at 205 miles an hour and running single-file [in the qualifying race] hanging on for dear life," to "running in a 40-car blob."

"This seems to be a hybrid of those two -- it's wild to drive it and to be out there," Waltrip said. "Of course, we're figuring out now how to get the two-car pods tied together for maybe three or four pair of them battling at the checkered flag.

"So it's different, but to me it's just another page in the history of Daytona. This is my 25th in a row. In those 24 previous, I've seen a little bit of everything. This is another example of that."

Hmiel plans visit to race track

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing competition director Steve Hmiel was smiling a lot last weekend, when he said his son Shane Hmiel, who was critically injured last fall in a USAC race in Indiana, would travel to Florida this weekend to attend a USAC Sprint Car event at Ocala Speedway, about 90 minutes northwest of Daytona Beach.

But the dad's grin was even wider Thursday when he offered an update on his son, who previously had a budding NASCAR driving career that was derailed by a lifetime ban for violating NASCAR's substance-abuse policy. Shane Hmiel had become a USAC open-wheel driver of note when he was injured, on Oct. 10 when his Sprint Car flipped at the Terre Haute Action Track.

Steve Hmiel said doctors had told the family at one relatively recent point their son had no hope but to remain a quadriplegic.

"They underestimated Shane, but he continued to make improvements," Steve said last Sunday, though he delivered the best news Thursday. "We got the news [Thursday] they've put him on unlimited therapy. That means he won't leave [therapy center in Atlanta] until he walks out.

"That's huge -- a real load off our minds [because] we were going to leave him there as long as it took, because of the progress he was making."

Hmiel said Shane asked to make the van trip to Florida.

"He just wanted to be at a race track again -- he wanted to see his friends," Steve Hmiel said. "And he didn't want them to think he was just rotting in a hospital."

Rookie classes announced

NASCAR on Thursday announced the candidates for rookie of the year in their three national series that kick off their seasons this weekend in Daytona.

Two drivers who will each make their first career start in the Daytona 500 are currently registered to compete for Sprint Cup rookie of the year. Brian Keselowski will start 12th in his family run No. 92 Dodge, while sports car champion Andy Lally will start 37th in TRG Motorsports No. 71 Chevrolet.

Only one of the three drivers currently registered to compete for the Nationwide Series rookie of the year is in Daytona, where that division qualifies at 4:10 p.m. ET Friday. Jennifer Jo Cobb will attempt to make her first Speedweeks Nationwide start in the No. 79 2nd Chance Racing Ford. Of her two contenders for the award, Blake Koch isn't entered and Timmy Hill doesn't turn 18 until Feb. 25, the opening day of practice for the series' next round, at Phoenix.

The Camping World Truck Series has the biggest field of rookie candidates, 10, eight of whom have made at least one series start.

Johanna Long, who has seven career Truck Series starts, is the highest qualifying rookie, in fifth. Other rookie candidates at Daytona (career starts) include Joey Coulter (0) in eighth, Parker Kligerman (1) in 13th, Miguel Paludo (4) in 14th, Jeffrey Earnhardt (5) in 23rd, Craig Goess (2) in 28th and Nelson Piquet Jr. (5) in 35th.

Rookie candidates Cole Whitt (1) and Chris Eggleston (5) failed to qualify and Justin Johnson wasn't eligible to make his series debut at Daytona.