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Dale Jr., Busch held off in fight to finish

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Gordon kept looking for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his rearview mirror. When he finally saw him, "I
thought it was over, done," Gordon said.

As it turned out, Earnhardt found just enough speed to scare
Gordon, not to beat him.

Gordon grabbed the lead from Earnhardt three laps from the
scheduled end, then held off Kurt Busch and Earnhardt in extra laps
Sunday to become only the fifth driver to win three Daytonas.

It was one of the wildest finishes in the 47-year history of
NASCAR's biggest race. There were four lead changes in the last
nine laps and two crashes involving a total of 17 cars in the last
20 laps.

Earnhardt, the defending champion, came from 30th with less than
100 miles to go to grab a late lead, only to see Gordon pass him
seconds before a caution flag waved on the 198th of the scheduled
200 laps.

The race went three extra laps to finish under a green flag, and
Gordon hung on to beat Busch by two car lengths.

"Oh, my goodness, what an amazing day," a jubilant Gordon
said. "Three, baby!"

Gordon, a four-time NASCAR champion, joins Richard Petty (7),
Cale Yarborough (4) and Bobby Allison and Dale Jarrett (3) with
three or more Daytona victories.

Gordon first won it in 1997 and again in 1999.

"This one's sweeter than the other two," he said. "It was an
amazing finish."

Team owner Rick Hendrick, who lost his son, brother, two nieces
and several key team officials among 10 people killed last October
when a company plane crashed, was in Victory Lane with Gordon.

The winner dedicated the victory to the families of those killed
in the crash.

"You know they're looking down smiling. It doesn't get any
better than that," he said.

Tony Stewart dominated the race for a second straight year,
leading 107 laps, and was well on the way to his first 500 win
before a rash of late caution flags set up the dramatic ending.

Earnhardt, who struggled with handling through most of the race
and had not led a lap, was second, hugging Stewart's rear bumper,
when he suddenly dove to the outside, just in front of Gordon and
charged past the leader to grab the top spot on the 197th lap.

"I was real, real happy," Earnhardt said. "I'm telling you,
man, the car was way, way off. It was hard. It was amazing the
difference between the car (at the end) and maybe 50 laps before
then. I mean, it was really fast."

When Earnhardt charged to the lead, Gordon thought the race was
over.

"When the cautions came out, I would look in my mirror or look
on the board to see how far back he was," Gordon said. "I thought
maybe Junior was having engine problems or handling problems. Then
he flipped a switch there at the end. I was like, 'Oh, here he
is.' "

"I didn't even think we could get up beside him, let alone pass
him."

Gordon did finally pull alongside Earnhardt and nosed ahead just
moments before the 11th yellow flag of the race froze the field.

On the restart on lap 202, Busch, the defending Nextel Cup
champion, drove his Ford past Earnhardt on the outside but couldn't
get close enough to Gordon for a real challenge as Earnhardt
battled to hold off Jimmie Johnson for third.

"I wanted to take Gordon on the outside, but nobody would have
went with us," Busch said. "I had to follow him because there's
only so much you can do if you don't have anybody behind you."

Stewart, who pushed his buddy Earnhardt to victory a year ago,
wound up seventh this time. But the 2002 series champion was
upbeat.

"I think we ran about as good a race as we possibly could have
run," Stewart said. "At least we had a car that was good enough
to lead laps. We got a good start to the season. I'm ready to go."

Behind the three leaders, things got really wild, with three-
and four-wide racing and cars banging and bumping off each other to
the finish.

Among those bouncing off each other on the last lap were Stewart
and Johnson, who wound up fifth. Stewart even gave Johnson's car a
parting bump on the cooldown lap, infuriating Johnson's crew chief,
Chad Knaus.

The two drivers were summoned to the NASCAR office immediately
after the race, but they came out together, smiling.

"Jimmie and I are really good friends and this isn't something
that is going to linger. It's over with," Stewart said. "NASCAR
just wanted to make sure there wasn't anything big happening out of
it."

Scott Riggs finished fourth, followed by Johnson and Mark Martin
in his last Daytona 500. Rusty Wallace, also in his finale, was
10th.

Unlike other races at Daytona since NASCAR began requiring the
horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars,
most of the race was run with the field stretched out around the
2½-mile banked oval.

The Monte Carlos of Stewart, Gordon and two-time Daytona winner
Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt's teammate, led all but 25 laps and
spent much of the day in single file. Waltrip wasn't around at the
end because of an engine failure.

Things began heating up on lap 183 when Greg Biffle and Riggs
bumped in the middle of a pack and ignited a nine-car crash that
sent Scott Wimmer's car barrel-rolling and then spinning several
times on its nose. Wimmer was not injured.

The race restarted on lap 188, but several cars banged together
before even passing the flagstand, sparking an eight-car crash on
the main straightaway.

NASCAR managed to get that mess cleared in time for a restart on
lap 196, but there was yet another caution waving on lap 198
because of debris on the track.

In a nearly identical situation last spring at Talladega, a
heavily partisan crowd angrily threw beer and soda cans and seat
cushions onto the track after NASCAR said Gordon was ahead of
Earnhardt when the caution came out near the end of the race.
Gordon went on to win that race under caution.

That reaction prompted new NASCAR chairman Brian France to
change the rule and allow a two-lap sprint for the win when a
caution comes out before the final scheduled lap.

The victory was the 70th for Gordon, who barely missed his fifth
series title last year when he finished just 16 points behind Busch
and eight behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson in the
closest points race in NASCAR history.

Gordon averaged 135.173 mph, winning $1,474,466 from the record
purse of $17 million.

"I didn't know what the week had in store for us," Gordon
said. "I knew we had a good car. We hadn't shown everything. I
knew over 500 miles, with that pit crew, that team, that hopefully
some patience would pay off there at the end."