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Junior takes No. 3 to checkered flag

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins in a car with his father's number - but blue instead of black.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

DAYTONA BEACH -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. put the No. 3 car in Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway for the first time since his father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

He won the EAS/GNC Live Well 300, the season opener for the Busch Grand National series, holding off Winston Cup teammate Michael Waltrip over the final two laps.

Saturday's race marked the first time the No. 3 -- the number on the black car Earnhardt drove for 17 Winston Cup seasons -- was used since Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash Feb. 18. But this time it was on a blue car.

"This is a good tribute," he said. "It's a lot of pressure putting me in a car with the No. 3 on the side. I tried to downplay the No. 3. But winning, I don't know if I want to downplay it. I know Daddy would have been real happy."

The Busch program that put Earnhardt Jr. in two races in the No. 3 this season -- the other is in May at Charlotte -- is owned by Richard Childress, Earnhardt's Winston Cup car owner for 18 years. Earnhardt Jr. won the 1998 and '99 Busch series titles in a No. 3 Chevrolet.

"I'm happy for everybody who got behind this program," Childress said. "I'm just so proud to see the No. 3 in there and to see an Earnhardt in it."

Delayed for more than two hours by rain, the race came down to a battle of Winston Cup drivers: Earnhardt, Waltrip, Jimmy Spencer and Matt Kenseth. Running third, Spencer made his move on Lap 106 of 120, but a cut right front tire ended his charge.

Kenseth pulled beside Waltrip going into Turn 1 of Lap 119, but was unable to pass without drafting help. Waltrip, who finished second to Earnhardt in the Pepsi 400 in July at Daytona, settled for second again.

"I'm sure he was having a tough time choosing between teammate, buddies, friendship and trying to win," Earnhardt said of Waltrip. "Him staying back there helped me some."

Earnhardt led 59 laps.

He has finished first or second in his last six races at Daytona: two Busch races, two Winston Cup points races, the Budweiser Shootout and a Gatorade 125-mile qualifying race.

"I really like this racetrack and I put a lot of emphasis on every lap I run here," Earnhardt said. "If I could run every week here I would. The track has got so much history. It's probably the most perfectly built racetrack I've ever been on."

He also was happy to reach Victory Lane for his father's widow, Teresa, who attended a race for the first time since her husband died.

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