Sunday, February 9, 2003

Earnhardt charges past Gordon for Shootout win



By MARK DeCOTIS
Florida Today

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Once again, Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved he is NASCAR's premier big track racer Saturday night. But instead of doing it with slickness and speed, he added some muscle to capture the 70-lap Bud Shootout at Daytona International Speedway.

"I can't remember how I got into the lead," Earnhardt said in victory lane.

"That was a tough win. It was hard. We got beat up and beat on, and beat back."

As usual, Earnhardt had a strong car at Daytona, and he used it to outrun and outbang an all-star field of 18 competitors, racing for the first time under NASCAR's common-bodied car rules. The cars were stable and allowed the drivers to race pretty much where they wanted.

Jeff Gordon was second, Matt Kenseth third, Ryan Newman fourth, Ward Burton fifth.

Earnhardt also led the pack at the 20th lap intermission and battled near the front as the second, 50-lap portion got underway.

The field pitted en masse on lap 52 and Mark Martin came out first, followed by Ken Schrader and Ricky Rudd, setting the stage for the final dash. They were quickly joined by seven other cars for a seven-vehicle scramble for the lead that Gordon grabbed on the backstretch on lap 57.

Gordon maintained his lead with 10 laps to go, followed by Kurt Busch, Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Rudd and Newman. It was clear the winner would come from that group.

With six laps to go, Earnhardt made a move for the lead heading into turn three, but was bumped high by Busch, who hung tenaciously onto second.

Earnhardt, with a push from Newman, caught Busch and took the lead from Gordon on lap 66 to thunderous approval from the bleachers.

Earnhardt then bobbed and weaved and blocked his challengers while running alone out front. Gordon got drafting help from Newman but was unable to catch Earnhardt.

Gordon had established himself on lap 27, grabbing the lead from Kenseth heading into turn one.

But methodically, Tony Stewart began working his way forward after starting the second segment in 17th place. He moved as high as fifth and settled in with the leaders but was unable to make further headway.

The beginning of the race featured some of the best racing seen at Daytona in recent years. The drivers used the inside, middle and outside racing grooves, running three wide behind the leader, much to the delight of the crowd of about 80,000.

Jimmie Johnson beat pole-sitter Geoffrey Bodine into turn one at the start and led four laps until Busch took the point and led for 11 laps. As Busch was up front, Earnhardt was working his way through traffic from his 19th starting spot.

Earnhardt's car handled well wherever he boldly took it and was able to wrest the lead from Busch by lap 16.

Busch couldn't challenge, and Earnhardt led at the break after 20 laps.

There were no major tweaks in the pits during the break. Crews fiddled with tape, tires and chassis adjustments, setting the stage for the 50-lap finale.

While the Shootout is not a true indicator of how the Daytona 500 will shake out next Suinday - since the teams use backup cars - it does give everyone a good idea of how the cars will handle in traffic and in the draft.

Five times in the 24-year history of the Shootout, formerly known as the Busch Clash, drivers have won the all-star race and the 500. Dale Jarrett did it twice along with Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott and Bobby Allison.




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