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Junior is 3-for-3 at SpeedWeeks

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is making it look easy.

After Saturday's win in the Koolerz 300 Busch Grand National race, Junior is one win from history as the first to sweep SpeedWeeks at Daytona International Speedway in the modern era.

"Nobody has ever won it all," he said. "We've got a lot to be proud of what we've done during SpeedWeeks. But we know nothing equals up to that Daytona 500 victory."

Earnhardt Jr. has won all the preliminary events leading to today's Daytona 500: the Bud Shootout and a 125-mile qualifying race in his Winston Cup car, and the BGN race. The only thing he did not win is the 500 pole, which went to Jeff Green.

Junior was the first repeat BGN winner since his father won five straight here from 1990-94. Three times the elder Earnhardt, who was killed in a crash on the last corner of the 2001 Daytona 500, won the preliminary events but failed to win the 500. His only 500 win was in 1998.

Bobby Allison won two of the events, the BGN race and the 500 in 1988, but not the Shootout.

NASCAR operated under a different format in 1962, when Fireball Roberts won all four events: a Race of Champions, a 25-miler that determined the pole, a 100-mile qualifier and the 500. The modern era began in 1972.

"Every time we do something, I get a little more worried because it's tough," Junior said. "The microscope and the focus can be a heavy load, especially when the main reason you're here is to win the race that hasn't happened yet."

Saturday, Junior took the lead before the halfway point and stayed there, leading 67 of 120 laps in the No. 8 Chevrolet in an an impressive debut for Chance2 Motorsports, owned by Junior and his stepmother, Teresa.

Winston Cup regular Matt Kenseth was second.

Kevin Harvick led the first 53 laps but lost the lead on a yellow-flag pit stop when he left with the gasoline catch can attached to his No. 21 Chevrolet. Sent to the rear of the field, he battled back to finish third.

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

That would be Junior.

Though Michael Waltrip, Jeff Green and Robby Gordon also have strong cars for today's Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. is the clear favorite. He starts second.

"With the success we've had up to this point in this SpeedWeeks, we've got to be the favorite," Junior said. "I'm a little nervous. But we've got a good car and I'll just go in there with the most positive attitude I can have."

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