Daytona 500 to be run Sunday
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 16 (UPI) -- The Daytona 500 will be run for the 45th time Sunday with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. the decided favorite.
Being the favorite at Daytona, however, usually means little because of the myriad of things that can go wrong during the 500 miles of racing.
It will be a day of nose-to-bumper, side-by-side racing brought about by the restrictor plates in all cars.
"You're in the car surrounded by other cars in front of you, beside you and behind you," said former winner Darrell Waltrip said. "From inside the car, it may look serene on TV, but boy, there's a real thunderstorm out there with all the air turbulence from the draft."
Understanding "the draft" is often the key to victory in the Daytona 500. Former driver and team owner Junior Johnson is credited with discovering the draft when he won the 1960 Daytona 500 in a car that was not the fastest on the track.
Johnson found that if he tucked his slower car directly in the air flow of a faster car in front of him, the vacuum effect would pull Johnson's car faster than if he was running by itself.
In today's era, the draft plays a key role in determining the outcome at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, where restrictor plates are mandatory.
However, trying to team up and draft past Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this week has proved to be futile, which makes the son of the 1998 Daytona 500 winner a major threat.
Earnhardt won last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, nearly took the pole for the Daytona 500 on Monday, captured the second Twin 125 qualifying race on Thursday and claimed Saturday's Busch Koolerz 300.
Woods meets Mickelson in showdown
Playing in his first tournament of the year, the world's No. 1 player fired a 4-under 68 at the Torry Pines South Course for a 54-hole total of 12-under 204. His round included a chip-in for bogey along with a birdie on the par-5 18th after hitting his second shot into the grandstand.
Woods was one shot in front of second-round co-leader Brad Faxon and two ahead of Mickelson and rookie Steven Alker. Woods, Faxon and Mickelson will be paired in Sunday's final threesome.
Woods returned to the PGA Tour this week after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in December and found himself in the midst of a mini-controversy touched off by Mickelson. In a magazine interview, Mickelson said that Woods had achieved greatness despite the fact he did not play with the best clubs and golf ball available.
Both players have said that incident had been put behind them, but it will be against that background that they will battle for the championship Sunday.
In addition, Woods finds himself further behind the top spot on the money list than he has ever been since he began his first full season on the tour in 1997. Ernie Els won his first two starts on the tour this year to earn $1.8 million.
"It's great to be back and it's great to compete again," Woods said. "That is what I really missed.
"I drove it a lot better today. This is one of those courses where it is hard to go low. It is hard to make a lot of birdies and it is easy to make a ton of bogeys and you have to keep that in mind when you play."
Faxon shot a 1-under 71 Saturday for his 205 total and he would have had the lead had he not missed two short putts on the back nine. Generally regarded as the best putter on the tour, Faxon missed putts inside four feet on both the 11th and 13th holes.
Mickelson fired a 69 to finish at 206 and is the only player in the field this week with three rounds in the 60s. Among those at 207, three shots out of the lead, was Fred Couples, who is looking for his first tour victory in almost five years.
Els builds enormous lead
PERTH, Australia, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Ernie Els shot an 8-under 64 Saturday to set the 54-hole European Tour record and build a nine-shot lead at the Johnnie Walker Classic.
Craig Spence set a European Tour record with eight straight birdies and matched a course mark with a 9-under-par 63 but those feats left him 11 shots behind Els.
Seeking his fifth win in six tournaments, the world's second-ranked golfer reached 23-under 193 after three trips around the Lake Karrinyup Country Club. That eclipsed by one stroke the previous 54-hole mark, set by Vicente Fernandez at the 1975 Benson & Hedges Festival.
The reigning British Open champion, Els collected an eagle, seven birdies and a bogey for a nine-shot cushion over South African countryman Craig Kamps and France's Jean-Francois Remesy.
Former U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen was among four players tied for fourth at 13-under 203. Spence's record-setting birdie streak got him sole possession of eighth place at 204.
Mavericks win 40th game
DALLAS, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Nick Van Exel and Eduardo Najera led a fourth-quarter surge Saturday night as the Dallas Mavericks rallied for a 98-92 victory over Miami.
The Mavericks recorded their league-leading 40th win.
Dirk Nowitzki had a solid all-around game with 25 points, 12 rebounds and a season-high eight assists. But the All-Star forward made just seven of 20 shots from the field, missing 11 of 12 at one point.
With Nowitzki off the mark and Dallas getting pounded on the boards, Miami opened a 12-point lead late in the second quarter. The Heat still held a 73-68 advantage with 10 1/2 minutes to go before Van Exel and Najera emerged.
Van Exel scored eight of his 17 points in the final period. His leaner from the right baseline gave Dallas the lead for good at 74-73 with 9:26 to play. He made a running banker for a 90-85 edge with 44 seconds left, then added four free throws.
Najera scored seven of his nine points in the fourth quarter, most of them off hustle plays. He helped the Mavericks match the energy of the Heat, who held a 55-38 advantage on the glass.
Other NBA results: Chicago 88, Denver 69.
Toronto wins in Roberts' return
TORONTO, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- With Gary Roberts back in the lineup for the first time since the Eastern Conference finals, Toronto downed Ottawa Saturday night, 2-1.
The Maple Leafs came up with the win on Jonas Hoglund's goal with 44 seconds remaining.
Roberts underwent offseason surgery on both shoulders after helping Toronto eliminate Ottawa from the playoffs for the third straight year. He missed 57 games but started this nationally televised contest with familiar linemates Mats Sundin and Alexander Mogilny.
The trio helped connect for the Maple Leafs' first goal as defenseman Robert Svehla broke a scoreless deadlock 13:32 into the second period.
But All-Star defenseman Zdeno Chara tied it on the power play at 6:33 of the third and the game appeared headed to overtime.
That was before Senators defenseman Shane Hnidy coughed up the puck outside his own blue line and Toronto came in three on one. Mikael Renberg carried down the left side and reached the bottom of the faceoff circle before flinging a pass in front to Hoglund, who tapped it past Patrick Lalime for his 11th goal.
It was the second game-winner for Hoglund, who had just one goal in his previous 16 games.
Other NHL results: New York Islanders 3, Los Angeles 2; Montreal 3, Edmonton 2; Buffalo 5, New York Rangers 4; Carolina 2, Philadelphia 2; Detroit 6, Atlanta 2; Chicago 7, Columbus 1; Washington 2, Florida 1; Pittsburgh 4, New Jersey 1; Tampa Bay 5, Boston 2; Phoenix 5, St. Louis 3; Nashville 2, Anaheim 1; Colorado 3, Minnesota 2.
Arizona protects No. 1 ranking
TUCSON, Ariz., Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Channing Frye's career-high 25 points paced No. 1 Arizona to an 86-59 victory over Southern California Saturday.
The Wildcats won their 18th consecutive home game against its Pac-10 Conference rival.
Jason Gardner contributed 16 points and Salim Stoudamire added 10 for the Wildcats (20-2, 12-1 Pac-10), who have not lost to the Trojans at the McKale Center since a 64-63 setback in 1985 and have won nine of the last 11 meetings overall.
Arizona is 32-4 since the start of last season when scoring at least 80 points, including 16-0 this season. The Wildcats recorded their first 4-0 regular-season record against USC and UCLA since the 1992-93 campaign.
Desmon Farmer led Southern California (10-11, 5-7) with 11 points and Gregg Guenther Jr. had 10 nine rebounds. USC, which has lost two in a row and seven of its past 11, fell to 1-4 against ranked opponents.
No. 2 Louisville, No. 3 Kentucky and No. 4 Oklahoma all recorded victories Saturday, but eight members of the top 25 suffered losses.
Louisville downed No. 11 Marquette, 73-70; Kentucky fought off LSU, 68-57; and Oklahoma edged Texas Tech, 63-58.
During the week, six of the top 10 teams lost a game. Only Arizona, Kentucky, No. 6 Texas and No. 10 Kansas escaped the week unscathed.
Earnhardt captures season-opening Busch race
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued his Daytona domination Saturday by winning the Busch Koolerz 500.
Earnhardt won the race under caution after CART driver Jimmy Vasser triggered a fiery crash with less than two laps to go.
Vasser, who has made his name in open-wheel racing, crashed hard into the outside wall when his Dodge Intrepid was clipped in the rear by Todd Bodine's Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
That blocked the track and Jason Keller's Ford Taurus ran into the mayhem. Keller's car burst into flames and the driver was pinned to the inside retaining wall.
Two laps later, Earnhardt drove his Chevrolet under the yellow and checkered flags to score his second straight win in this event and 16th career Busch series victory.
While the celebration was going on in the pit area, Keller was able to climb out of the car that had burned with bright orange flames just a minute earlier, a fitting finish to a race with a handful of scary accidents.
Trust N Luck wins Derby prep
HALLANDALE, Fla., Feb. 16 (UPI) -- Trust N Luck became the latest horse to jump in front in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and never look back.
Trust N Luck won the $200,000 Grade I race at Gulfstream Park in impressive fashion Saturday, opening a big lead down the stretch and coasting to a 5 1/4-length victory.
With Cornelio Velasquez aboard, Trust N Luck became the sixth straight wire-to-wire winner of the Fountain of Youth, the first notable prep race for the Kentucky Derby.
Because the race takes place so early in the season, trainers sometimes are reluctant to sternly test their Kentucky Derby hopefuls, and that might have been the case Saturday.
Trust N Luck was pushed briefly on the backstretch by Midway Cat but broke clear of the field and covered the 1 1/16-mile race in 1 minute, 43.33 seconds.