Sunday, February 16, 2003

Sweep in Earnhardt Jr.'s reach

Adds Busch race to 2 other wins at Speed Weeks

The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on the verge of doing something his father never did at Daytona: a Speed Weeks sweep. Junior put himself in position for the sweep by winning Saturday's Koolerz 300 Busch Series race for the second straight year.

He is the first driver to win back-to-back Busch races here since his late father got his fifth in a row in 1994.

This was also Junior's third victory at Daytona International Speedway in eight days, including the Bud Shootout and a 125-mile qualifying race for Sunday's Daytona 500.

Three times, Dale Earnhardt Sr. won all the preliminary races, only to come up short in the Daytona 500 - a race he didn't win until his 20th try. Now, his son is poised for a sweep during Speed Weeks - something no one else has accomplished in NASCAR's modern era beginning in 1972.

"I'm a little nervous because nobody's ever done it," Junior said, when asked about winning them all. "It doesn't bode well for tomorrow, but we've got a good car and we'll go in with a good attitude."

The only competition Earnhardt hasn't won this week is pole qualifying for Sunday's race. He'll start second, beside Jeff Green, but he still goes in as the favorite to win NASCAR's biggest race.

"With the success we've had up to this point this Speed Weeks, we've got to be the favorite," Earnhardt said.

The only time a driver has had a clean sweep during Daytona's Speed Weeks came under a different format in 1962 when Glenn "Fireball" Roberts won four races: the Daytona 500; a special event called "The Race of Champions"; a 25-lap race to decide the pole for the 500; and a 100-mile qualifying race.

In Saturday's race, Earnhardt got out front just before the halfway point and stayed there. A four-car accident two laps from the end put the 120-lap, 300-mile race under a caution flag for the final trip around the 21/2-mile oval, with Earnhardt's No. 8 Chevrolet driving slowly across the finish line behind the pace car.

"It feels great," Earnhardt said. "We're having a great time. I'm happy, happy, happy! We're winning a bunch of races.

"There's still one to go."

Earnhardt, only an occasional starter in the Busch Series, took the lead from Kevin Harvick in the leaders' pit stops during a caution period on lap 54. He led the rest of the way and was never really challenged.

Saturday's win gives Junior five total race victories at Daytona, including the 2001 Pepsi 400. But the third-generation driver is still far behind his father's Daytona-record 34 wins. The elder Earnhardt won the Busch race seven times.

Harvick came back to finish third, despite a penalty - for leaving the pits with a gas catchcan stuck in the car - that sent him all the way to 30th place on lap 81.

"You can't make a mistake and expect to beat the best of the best," he said.

Junior averaged 143.770 mph on the way to his 16th Busch Series victory. It was also the 28-year-old driver's third victory in his last four Busch starts. He was the series champion in 1998 and 1998 before moving up to the Winston Cup series.

It was his second win as a team owner.

"This (car) is my little baby, in a way," Dale Jr. said, grinning. "I'm real proud of my team. None of them have a whole lot of experience and they were real nervous about making some kind of a mistake on pit road.

"I got behind Kevin early in the race and couldn't get past him," he added. "I knew I needed to get out front to win and I kept getting two tires all the race. It was something I did last year and it worked out great."

With the late crash shaking up the top 10, Mike Wallace wound up fourth, followed by Jamie McMurray, Bodine, Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Kasey Kahne.

Green was subbing for pole-winner Joe Nemechek, who sat out the race with the flu. Green, who started from the back of the pack, saw his day end when Scott Riggs bumped him from behind and sent his car spinning into the wall.

Michael Waltrip also was a victim of someone else's mistake. Jimmy Vasser, riding at the top of a three-wide draft, bounced off the wall and hit Randy Lajoie, who slammed into Waltrip and sent him hard into the wall.

Stacy Compton had the most spectacular crash of the day. He banged the outside wall coming off turn four and the engine compartment and underside of his car burst into flames. The fire continued to roar and the smoke bellow out until Compton got the car stopped in the infield grass nearly halfway down the back straightaway.

All the drivers except Keller were checked and released in the infield medical center. Keller was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital to be checked for a possible concussion.

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