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Team effort gets LaJoie to the top

The veteran wins his third NAPA 300 thanks in part to owner/teammate Joe Nemechek.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- Joe Nemechek couldn't be angry.

He was standing in Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway, after all.

Not as the winner of Saturday's NAPA 300, but as the victorious car owner for Randy LaJoie.

"We hired him because he can win," Nemechek said. "He's going to win a lot of races this year."

LaJoie took the lead 12 laps from the finish thanks to drafting help from Nemechek and stayed there after his car owner wrecked on the backstretch on the next-to-last lap.

The race ended under caution.

"The way it's going," said LaJoie, who also won the race in 1997 and '99, "I'm going to take next year off and come back in 2003."

The NEMCO Motorsports teammates used a slingshot to pass leader Jeff Purvis on Lap109 and stayed in that order for the next 10 laps until defending race winner Matt Kenseth changed the outcome by a nose.

Kenseth, third at the time and closing fast in the No. 17 Chevrolet, bumped Nemechek's No. 87 Pontiac on the backstretch and sent him out of control.

"By the time I knew he was coming back down to block, I was in there too far to get out of there," Kenseth said. "I feel bad about it."

Said Nemechek, who started on the pole and finished 32nd: "We tried to get this thing to finish one-two, but Matt had a heck of a run coming on me. I tried to stay in front of him, but he had too big of a run. He just turned me around and I just couldn't save it."

Purvis, who led three times for a race-best 65 laps and starts 19th in today's Daytona 500, was hit by Nemechek. He finished 28th.

"I knew Joe and Randy were going to work together, but I wasn't expecting this right here," Purvis said. "They always pick on the Busch drivers, it seems like. I'm going to run the Winston Cup race (today) and if I wreck 'em all, they better not say anything.

"This (Busch) is basically our bread and butter right here. We did the best we can. I tried to run everybody as clean as I could and this is what I end up with. It just hurts."

LaJoie, a two-time series champ, overcame two early mistakes on pit road for Pontiac's first win in the NAPA 300 since 1986. He went to the back of the field twice, once for a loose lug nut and once for a stray tire.

"I must've passed 85 cars today," LaJoie said.

He was at the front and challenging Purvis for the lead by Lap106, on a restart for the fifth caution of the race. "We talked on a caution and (Nemechek) said we had to try to get our lanes open," LaJoie said. "I told him the only place I could get a run was going into Turn3. So when we got a chance, we went for it."

With Nemechek close behind, he went around Purvis on the outside in Turn3 to take the lead on Lap109.

"I saw he wasn't going to give me the bottom," LaJoie said. "I had a good run going into Turn3 and I could try the outside. ... We had a good run and I got a good push from (Nemechek) and got by him."

Kevin Harvick finished second in the No. 2 Chevrolet, followed by Kenseth and defending BGN champion Jeff Green in the No. 10 Ford.

"We just took what we could get there at the end," Harvick said.

Twenty-eight drivers finished on the lead lap, which tied a BGN record and set a track record. Rain delayed the race for 1 hour, 28 minutes on Lap15.

"I'm looking forward to the rest of the season," said LaJoie, who pocketed $96,270. "Because this is pretty sporty. ... I think we'll be in Victory Lane a lot this year."

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