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Cool Burton Gets Win Over Dales

He doesn't have a flashy nickname or a daunting reputation and he's never been known as a master on stock-car racing's fastest tracks.

But Jeff Burton is a cool customer and, most importantly, a winner.

Burton held off late challenges from Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and several other big names Saturday night to come out on top after a four-lap dash in the Pepsi 400.

It was Ford driver's eighth victory over the past two seasons, more than anybody except Jeff Gordon.

As fireworks went off over Daytona International Speedway in an Independence Day celebration, Burton stood calmly in Victory Lane, carrying the trophy and a very big smile.

How could anybody be so cool after holding off such a big challenge?

"I always thought I was in good shape, but you never know," said Burton, who finished second to Jarrett in the Daytona 500 in February. "With Jarrett behind you and Earnhardt behind him, you never know. That's two of the best in the business. I was worried about it."

Jarrett and Earnhardt drafted together to move from eighth and ninth place to second and third with 20 laps remaining. They made several attempts at passing Burton, but Burton held them off, even though he had taken just two tires on his final pit stop and both Dales had taken four.

Dave Blaney and Jimmy Spencer were involved in a crash with six laps remaining, setting up the final shootout.

On the restart, Earnhardt got shuffled to the back, leaving Jarrett to try to make a move. But he got no help from Rusty Wallace, who had moved to third place in the reshuffling. Thus, Jarrett's quest to match Cale Yarborough's record of three straight victories at Daytona came up short.

"You can't just pull out and make a pass," Jarrett said. "You have to have the help. Everybody's tires were worn out. It's hard to stay right up behind a guy when you're like that. You're looking for a push. If you don't get a push, there's no sense in making a move."

Both Jarrett and Wallace, who was making his 500th consecutive start, were hurt by pit-road mishaps.

Wallace was penalized early in the race for speeding on pit road and was forced back to 40th place on the restart after the first yellow flag.

"If they sy I was speeding, I'm sure I was," Wallace said. "But I didn't think I was. That happens."

Jarrett led the first 53 laps - breaking the record set by Richard Petty in 1964 - and seemed to have the best car.

But during a pit stop on the 105th lap, when all the cars took their final full service, Jarrett's crew got hung up replacing a lug nut. He got shuffled back to 29th and spent the rest of the race trying for the lead in vain.

"Those things are going to happen," Jarrett said. "At least we made a run at it. We didn't quite make it three in a row, but at least we made a run at it."

For all his successes of late, the defending points champion has three fewer victories than Burton since the beginning of 1999.

Still, Burton's victory on NASCAR's most famous track came as something of a surprise. Burton drives for Roush Racing, never considered a specialist at Talladega or Daytona, the two tracks where restrictor plates are used to slow speeds.

Of course, good decision making and gutsy driving can make a difference, and the race might have been won when crew chief Frank Stoddard elected to change only two tires on the lap-105 pit stop.

"Two tires was a great call, a gutsy call," Burton said. "Most guys put on four. Frank wanted the lead. We worry when we do that. But fortunately, the car handled well enough to take two."

Burton, who earned $152,450 for his 13th career victory, won with an average speed of 148.576 mph. His margin of victory was 0.149 seconds, less than a car-length over Jarrett.

Wallace finished third, followed by Mark Martin and Ricky Rudd as Fords swept the top five places.

Tony Stewart was sixth in a Pontiac after racing in the top three most of the night. Ward Burton was next and Earnhardt got shuffled back to eighth.

There were 10 lead changes in the race, one more than in the Daytona 500, when NASCAR got criticized for boring racing because of new shock rules that, combined with the restrictor plates, hampered the driver's ability.

Series points leader Bobby Labonte finished 12th, four spots behind Earnhardt, who shaved his deficit to 52 points.

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