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LaJoie, 37, holds off youth in NAPA 300; Accidents, 18-year-olds provide concerns


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Randy LaJoie looked in his rearview mirror and did not enjoy the sight. Sitting behind him was Casey Atwood, 18, and behind Atwood was Adam Petty, also 18. And there were only four laps to go.

"Adam has been on my [backside] all winter about how his age and Casey's don't add up to mine," said LaJoie, 37, as he celebrated victory in the NAPA Auto Parts 300 Busch Grand National race. "I was just happy to be in front of them because I know I'm probably going to be behind them a lot more than they're behind me this season. And I also wanted to stay ahead of all the trouble."

The NAPA 300, like the Goody's Dash race and the Grand National practice session Friday afternoon, was an accident-strewn affair. Yesterday, six crashes involved 30 cars in the 43-car field.

At the finish, 24 cars were running, as LaJoie crossed the finish line under caution. He averaged 138.391 mph.

"I could have lost this race on Lap 59, when I had to pit because of a tire getting loose and I thought I was going to wreck on the backstretch just getting out of line to come into the pits," said LaJoie. "But Johnny Benson [crashed] and brought out a caution flag, and that allowed us to get four tires, gas and stay on the lead lap -- and when everyone else pitted, we were in the lead. I guess Johnny Benson won the race for us."

Besides the many tangles, the race was also notable for the debut of a contingent of racers, many the sons of famous drivers.

The youngsters did get caught up in several incidents, including a spectacular one on the last lap in which Atwood's car flipped backward, sailed over two cars, slid on its roof for about 150 yards and then rolled five times before landing right-side-up on the front-stretch grass.

Veteran driver Jeff Green was beside Atwood, trying to get to second when Andy Hillenburg drove up under Atwood's car and started the young driver's flight.

"You saw what happened," said Green. "I saw him lift off and I was shaking. I don't want to run another race like that. Things were happening all around all afternoon."

Atwood got out of the car uninjured. The most impressive thing about the new drivers was that the mishaps were not the young drivers' fault.

"It was like a bunch of kids running at the go-kart lot," said Bobby Hillen, who finished fifth after watching Atwood fly over his car's roof. "The attitude seemed to be do anything but spin a guy out. I attribute it to the restrictor plates [which decrease the amount of air and fuel reaching the carburetor and thus slow the speeds] for keeping everyone so close.

"If you want to take the young drivers separately, I'm very, very impressed. You look at what Adam Petty did to day and Dale Earnhardt Jr. did in winning the championship last year, and you can really tell their fathers have been talking to them."

Youth results

Adam Petty finished sixth, after getting loose while trying to pass in to second with three laps to go. Earnhardt Jr. was 14th after coming from the back of the field to take the lead before being caught in a wreck on Lap 74.

Atwood finished 17th, but his feelings weren't hurt.

"The thing that makes me feel real good," Atwood said, "is that Dale Jr. did the same thing last year and went on to win the championship. So maybe we can do it too."

Kerry Earnhardt was 20th, Jason Jarrett 27th and Bobby Hamilton Jr. 30th.

Petty clan relieved

Kyle Petty greeted his son Adam with this when he climbed from the race car: "Thank God, there are no more super-speedway races for a while."

Later, Kyle Petty said his son ran a wonderful first race, and grandpa Richard Petty's smile lighted up the entire garage.

"I'm just as proud as a grandfather could be," Richard Petty said. "The situation was you'd watch him and hold your breath. He did a heck of a good job. He just watched what was going on and didn't try anything crazy. That was the good thing."

Thrilled to be in

Baltimore's Joe Washington stood in the garage, watching his crewmen work. They were banging and taping sheet metal, trying to get driver Mark Green and their No. 50 Dr Pepper Chevrolet back in the race.

"Look at the crew," said Washington, who with Julius Erving owns the team. "They're not giving up."

At that moment, the engine roared to life.

"There we go!" Washington said, clapping his hands. "We're back in the race! Great job, men!"

And he patted their backs and headed back to the pits.

Green finished 24th, a pretty good run considering he started 30th, was wrecked on Lap 89 and had to make repairs.

"The key thing here is that we made the race," Washington said. "We made the show. This time last year, we didn't make the race. We've been able to pick up the pace."

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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