The NASCAR veteran wins the Bud Shootout thanks to a little late help from Dale Earnhardt Jr.
By BRANT JAMES
Published February 8, 2004
DAYTONA BEACH - Dale Jarrett has been giving Dale Earnhardt Jr. free rides for years. Earnhardt got to return the favor on Saturday night.
Jarrett rode Earnhardt's furious bump draft past leader Kevin Harvick on the final lap, then held off the hard-charging No.8 Chevrolet along the high line to win the Budweiser Shootout, NASCAR's nonpoints race for the previous season's pole-sitters at Daytona International Speedway.
"When we got clean air, no one could pass us, so I had to get there," said Jarrett, who won his third Shootout and for the 10th time at Daytona. "I had to run where I could go wide open and that was outside. I could not do this without Dale Jr. He about knocked the rear bumper off, but that's what I needed."
Friends are precious at restrictor-plate tracks, where drafting is crucial. Jarrett and Earnhardt have long had an off-track bond, having known each other since Jarrett and Earnhardt's late father were friends. Earnhardt still bums rides to races on Jarrett's helicopter or airplane. His seat will always be waiting now.
"I saw him in Victory Lane and I told him he has a helicopter ride to Martinsville any time he wants it," Jarrett said, smiling. "I was working the back all night. I was trying to work my way forward, but when I worked my way forward, the other (drafting) line would start."
Jarrett was ninth with seven laps left after a 13-minute, 40-second red-flag period prompted by an accident that retired the cars of leaders Jeremy Mayfield and Dave Blaney. Jarrett found clean air high on the track and began picking off cars within two laps, and Earnhardt sidled in behind to shove him into second with two laps remaining. Jarrett's No.88 Ford passed Harvick's No.29 Chevrolet in Turn 3, sucking Earnhardt along.
"All I could do was push him out front and I tried to make a move on him," said Earnhardt, who has finished second three of the past four years. "I just couldn't get it done, but you have to be happy for him after last year. He had a rough season last year and it's a great win for him."
Great considering how Jarrett followed up his two previous Shootout victories. After winning the 1996 and 2000 editions, he went on to win the Daytona 500 the next weekend.
And perhaps even greater because the 1999 Winston Cup champion, a perennial top-10 driver, slumped to 26th in points last season.
"I hope that's a good omen," Jarrett said. "This isn't to say we're all the way back, but I think we're on the right road."
Harvick finished third, followed Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.
Under the unique Shootout format, cars ran 20 laps, then pitted for 10 minutes, then ran the final 50.
Blaney was surprisingly strong in the No.23 Dodge, leading twice in the middle of the race and fighting for the front when the wreck ended his race on Lap 61. Blaney was forced to the garage when Mayfield, leading in the No.19 Dodge, got loose out of Turn 2 and pinched Blaney against the wall. Mayfield's right front was crushed as his car went headlong into the wall, damaging a crossover gate and forcing the race to be red-flagged.
Under Bud Shootout rules, teams are allowed to make adjustments under red. The No.12 Dodge of Ryan Newman, third at the time of the accident, was fueled and fitted with four new tires for the final nine laps after the restart. The winner of 11 poles in 2003 soon surrendered the lead, however, was spun out in the final lap and finished 16th.
Jamie McMurray led after the first 20-lap session. He started third and stalked Gordon for the whole segment, then ducked ahead on Turn 3 of Lap 17 for the lead. McMurray had opened a 4 car-length lead by the time of the caution, ahead of Gordon, Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt.
After a first three laps in which the field bunched three wide much of the time, the leaders strung themselves single file in the signature follow-the-leader style of restrictor-plate racing.
Earnhardt won from the 19th spot in 2002 and threatened to do the same from the identical spot on Saturday, picking his way through the field quickly. He nearly nosed Gordon out of the lead at the start/finish line on Lap 16.