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Top teams bury the hatchet

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- Everything is lovey-dovey again between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the drivers at Richard Childress Racing.

Those nasty things Junior said Thursday? Aw, he didn't mean them.

"It was a little asinine, the way I was acting in here the other day," Earnhardt said.

After winning his 125-mile qualifying race, Earnhardt accused RCR teammates Jeff Green and Kevin Harvick of working against each other at times last season. He said the drivers might not appreciate the opportunities they have driving for Childress.

Childress was a longtime friend of his father's and owner of the black No. 3 car in which the late Dale Earnhardt won six of his seven Winston Cup championships before being killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt Jr. mended fences with Green and Harvick before the driver introductions for Saturday's Busch Grand National Koolerz 300, in which they all competed.

"He explained to me what he said," Harvick said. "Unfortunately it got turned into something bigger. He apologized that it got out of hand."

Today's 500 is shaping up to be a contest between RCR and Dale Earnhardt Inc. The first two rows are comprised of RCR's Green and Robby Gordon and DEI's Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip.

"My point was that I feel like if me and Michael team up, everybody else on the track will just be battling for third," Earnhardt said. "I didn't intentionally want to take a stab at any one driver or group of drivers. I wasn't in the best mood that day, either. But that don't matter. I run my mouth a little bit too much."

MIXED SIGNALS: Reaction to the penalty, or lack thereof, issued by NASCAR to Rusty Wallace's team for using an illegal carburetor in his 125-mile qualifier was a hot topic in the Winston Cup garage.

Some thought NASCAR was too lenient in disqualifying him from his fourth-place finish and fining crew chief Bill Wilburn $10,000 but not docking championship or owner points.

At the end of 2002, NASCAR took a black-and-white approach to infractions, penalizing teams 25 points regardless of intent.

"I thought it would have been a little bit stiffer penalty, myself," four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. "Usually, any time you're messing with a carburetor intake or restrictor plate for one of these races, it's severe. I thought it was a little inconsistent."

Late last season championship contender Mark Martin was stripped of 25 points for an illegal spring that competitors agreed likely gave him no competitive advantage. Martin's owner, Jack Roush, was livid at the time.

Saturday, he was calm.

"NASCAR is going to do whatever it wants to do when it suits their purpose, without regard to precedent," Roush said. "I have no way to control it. There's no reason I should get myself upset about it any more than I already have."

KELLER UNINJURED: A fiery crash with two laps left in the BGN race sent Jason Keller to a nearby hospital for precautionary tests.

Keller, whose car was hit broadside and burst into flames, had a CT scan for a possible concussion at Halifax Medical Center.

Tests showed nothing wrong, and he was released.

SNEAK PREVIEW: Things got dicey in the final Winston Cup practice between Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon.

Junior nudged Gordon's back bumper, though neither driver lost control of his car.

"It's getting down to crunch time, and everything is getting exciting," Gordon said. "It was an aggressive move, but everything was fine."

PIT STOPS: Lakeland product Joe Nemechek turned his car over to Green in the BGN race after experiencing flu-like symptoms in the morning Cup practice. Nemechek was on the pole. Green crashed on Lap 91 to finish 36th. ... Rookie Casey Mears went to a backup car after blowing a right-front tire and hitting the wall in the No. 41 Dodge during the final Cup practice.

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