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No restricting Junior

Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes from last to win another restrictor-plate race, the Bud Shootout.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from last place to win the Bud Shootout, an all-star event that usually is a precursor to the season-opening Daytona 500.

The scary part?

His best car is still under wraps.

Earnhardt, who has assumed his late father's place as the Winston Cup series' restrictor-plate master, blew past four-time champion Jeff Gordon on the backstretch Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway to take the lead with four laps left in the 70-lap sprint.

He beat Gordon by .18 seconds.

"There was so much happening the last few laps, I don't remember how I got into the lead," said Earnhardt, driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet whose fastest car is reserved for the Daytona 500. "We got beat up and beat on. It was a tough win."

The made-for-TV event featuring pole-sitters from the previous season and past Shootout winners was run at night for the first time in its 25 years before an estimated 80,000. It lived up to the hype as the sport's biggest stars raced two- and three-wide around the 2.5-mile track, trading paint at more than 180 mph.

Junior shone brightest.

He drew the last-place starting position in the 19-car field, but powered to the lead before Lap 20. Four of his seven victories have come in restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega, so no one was too surprised to see him claim his first Bud Shootout.

"When Junior wanted to go he could really go," said Matt Kenseth, who finished third in the No. 17 Ford. "One time there were three of us on the bottom and he went by us by himself. He was really stout."

Ryan Newman, whose push helped Junior take the lead, finished fourth in the No. 12 Dodge. Defending Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton, who gambled with a fuel-only pit stop, was fifth in the No. 22 Dodge.

New aerodynamic rules instituted by NASCAR have made all four makes -- Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and Pontiac -- nearly identical, leading to speculation that Earnhardt might have lost his edge on restrictor-plate tracks.

Not so.

"When we were single file I really didn't think anybody could touch us," said Gordon, whose No. 24 Chevrolet led twice for a race-high 31 laps. "When Junior got up there, I still didn't think he had enough momentum to get all the way by me, that the inside line was working a little bit better. But Junior is so strong. He's really good at these restrictor-plate tracks."

Earnhardt Sr. won 34 races at Daytona, including the 1998 Daytona 500. Junior believes having studied his father's tactics gives him at advantage.

"This is a drivers track sometimes, and you have to know what you are doing, especially when the tires get worn," Earnhardt said. "I love this track.

"This is like coming home to your mom from college or something. It's great to be back here."

Veteran Ken Schrader, driving the No. 49 Dodge that struggled so much last season, was a surprising front-runner. He spent most of the race in the top five and pulled up on the outside to challenge Earnhardt for the lead in the closing laps before finishing sixth.

Pole-sitter Geoffrey Bodine, whose spot in the field is guaranteed each year by his 1992 victory, does not have a full-time ride this season. He parked brother Brett Bodine's No. 11 Ford after three laps because of a suspension problem, but took home $29,600 of the nearly $1-million purse.

Reigning Winston Cup champion and two-time defending Shootout winner Tony Stewart had a disappointing debut in his Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet. He finished 15th.

Earnhardt loves racing at Daytona, despite the heartache the track dealt him when his father was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.

"We come down here and we test and we run real hard," said Earnhardt, who won $205,000. "We never really play around with anybody. A lot of these guys I race against would probably rather I help them out and be a little more calm in the draft, but I want to be the guy leading."

He usually is.

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