More sweet success for Earnhardt

Busch Series opener win is his ninth career victory at Daytona International

Auto Racing

February 17, 2004|By Shannon Rose | Shannon Rose,ORLANDO SENTINEL

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- This was Junior's Daytona.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., coming off the biggest victory of his career the day before, added another triumph yesterday, winning the NASCAR Busch Series Hershey's Kisses 300.

It was his third consecutive Busch Series win at the track, and it also was his ninth career victory at Daytona.

The emotions from the Busch Series win didn't electrify Daytona International Speedway as did Earnhardt's victory in Sunday's Daytona 500. But it showed once more how Earnhardt is staking claim to the speedway, just as his father did.

"He's got a knack for this place," said Robby Gordon, who finished third behind Earnhardt and Johnny Sauter. "I don't know who taught him or if his dad taught him, but he's obviously learned how to see the air like his dad did."

For Earnhardt, 29, winning the rain-delayed Hershey's Kisses 300 -- the Busch Series opener was postponed from Saturday -- just added to the fun. His burnout at the finish line filled the track with smoke. After climbing from his car, he dived headfirst into his crew, much like diving into a mosh pit at a rock concert.

"Today was just some bonus action," Earnhardt said, his voice a little softer, his words a little slower than the previous night.

He had stayed up until 2 a.m., then received an early wake-up call to see his 500-winning Chevrolet enshrined at Daytona USA yesterday. Still, he came to the track later in the morning with the intentions of winning.

Though the win itself paled to the one the day before, the racing far outshined that in the 500.

No position was safe. Cars were shuffled out of the lead repeatedly. One time, Gordon went from leading to 12th in a matter of moments when he got caught in the middle groove on Lap 83.

"This [aerodynamic] package is a little more fun than on Nextel Cup," Gordon said. "But, whoa, it's a handful."

The lead changed 17 times, with Earnhardt taking it five times to lead a race-high 47 laps. The cars ran close together, sometimes too close. Sauter almost wrecked Gordon, who said he was in a "death wiggle" as he saved it.

Earnhardt had to work hard to stay out front during the final 35 laps. Gordon went by him once for a lap. Sauter made his pass on Lap 108. Each time, Earnhardt roared back to the front, toying with his challengers.

"I don't think his car was that strong unless he was playing with us," said Sauter, who rode Earnhardt's bumper the final 11 laps.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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