Dale Earnhardt Jr. tried to cap his championship season with a flourish. He wound up with a blown engine, a next-to-last finish and an impromptu mosh pit.
Earnhardt clinched the NASCAR Busch Series crown by taking the green flag for Sunday's Jiffy Lube Miami 300, so it didn't matter when his No. 3 Chevrolet started billowing white smoke on the frontstretch of the 89th lap.
"We had a little trouble, but we don't go out like that. We go out in style and have a good time," said Earnhardt, who stood on top of his car to salute the fans at the Miami-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex, then dove into the arms of waiting crew members.
Jeff Burton won the second-closest three-way finish in Busch Series history, pushing his Ford past Jimmy Spencer's Chevrolet coming off the final turn to beat his fellow Winston Cup driver by a nose.
Burton's margin of victory was .01 second. Mark Martin, the Winston Cup runner-up, had his nose on the leaders' tails to finish third in a Ford.
"Jimmy and I had a great finish today. We went through that final turn and we never touched. That's what racing's all about," said Burton, who scored his third victory this season in 13 Busch starts.
Earnhardt finished 42nd in the 43-car field. But with a 166-point lead over Matt Kenseth entering the race, the 42 points earned Sunday still were enough to become the first third-generation champion in NASCAR history.
| Dale Earnhardt Jr. works on his Chevrolet race car before first-round qualifying. (AP) |
The son of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt had a tough week, starting when he crashed his primary car some two hours before Friday's qualifying. He qualified his backu car 15th, then quickly moved up to lead 27 laps before the engine gave out.
"I was kind of upset because I wanted to be on the racetrack," Earnhardt said. "But the smiles on my crew's face changed that pretty quick. They're standing in the pits as happy as they could be about winning the championship."
In addition to his father's seven Winston Cup titles, grandfather Ralph Earnhardt won the 1956 championship in the Sportsman division, Busch's predecessor.
Earnhardt, running his first full Busch season, finished with 4,469 points. Kenseth, who started 36th, wound up with 4,421 points after a fourth-place finish in a Chevy. Mike McLaughlin was third in the points race, Sunday's 18th-place finish in a Chevy giving him 4,045.
Burton, who started 23rd, was eighth with 70 laps to go before a superior set of tires allowed him to hunt down the leaders. He moved up to fourth by the 158th lap and took third eight laps later, then set his sights on Spencer and Martin.
Spencer consistently led Martin by about two seconds, then saw the gap shrink as he ran into lap traffic on the 1 ½-mile oval. The margin dwindled to 1 ½ seconds by the 190th lap, and to less than a second with seven laps left. With five laps left, they were running single file.
"I knew Jeff and Mark were coming," Spencer said. "The lap cars got me up pretty high, higher than I wanted. I knew I had to really respect my tires."
Martin got loose heading into Turn 4 on the 197th lap and Burton dove under to take second, setting up the final duel.
They continued running nose-to-tail for the final two laps, then Burton went low into Turn 4, forcing Spencer high. Burton finally inched ahead with about 200 yards to go.
"The lap traffic hurt him," Burton said of Spencer. "Without that lap traffic, I couldn't have won."
"Dang it," Spencer said. "I almost caught a fish out there."
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