DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If the car had been black instead of blue, the fans at Daytona International Speedway might have sworn Dale Earnhardt had returned for one more race at the track he dominated.
But the driver in the No. 3, Richard Childress-owned Chevrolet yesterday, controlling the Live Well 300 Busch Grand National race, was Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I was real happy to run this car for Richard Childress," said Earnhardt, who beat his Winston Cup teammate, Michael Waltrip, to the finish line by inches. "I miss my father dearly. I guess this is kind of the last hurrah."
The celebration in victory lane looked like a replay of the record seven Busch victories here by the elder Earnhardt. Teresa Earnhardt was there, as she always was for her late husband. Childress was there, smiling widely, "What can you say?" he said. "I'm just so proud of what this young man has been able to do."
Childress is preparing the No. 3 car for three Busch races for Earnhardt Jr. this season.
"You want to know why I didn't pass the leader," said Waltrip, mugging for the TV camera. "He had the fastest car. I was doing all I could.
"The way things are shaking out, with me winning my 125 qualifier and Junior winning today, it's been pretty good times down here for our crowd."
Earnhardt averaged 147.662 mph in the race that started 2 1/2 hours late because of rain. Waltrip was 0.162 of a second behind, and Matt Kenseth was right on Waltrip's bumper for third.
Wait and see
Rain washed out the final practice before today's Daytona 500. That means the Ford and Dodge teams have even less time than they imagined to sort out their cars' handling after Friday's rules change that cut a quarter-inch off their rear spoilers.
Rusty Wallace, Todd Bodine, Bobby Hamilton and Dave Blaney may be even more in the dark. Those four, involved in crashes during practice Friday, said yesterday they will go to their backups for today's 500 and start at the back of the field.
All but Hamilton, who drives a Chevy, are in Fords. Bodine will feel the biggest impact from the move, as he was the highest qualifier (22nd) among the four.
Car owner Robert Yates was back at the track yesterday, feeling fine after spending the previous 24 hours at Halifax Hospital.
"When I woke up around 4 a.m. [Friday], I really thought my heart had quit pumping and I just started panicking, I guess," Yates said. "It was like my arms had fallen off my shoulders."
Yates was examined and told his heart was in good shape -- no plaque; big, clean arteries.
"They told me to go about my normal business, just don't lift anything," he said. "I must have just been eating at good places -- or something. I did have a miserable cold and was on antibiotics [until Thursday]. Maybe the combination of the stress of Daytona and all of that caused something to shut down."
Gibbs not on board
Early yesterday morning, a helicopter on its way to pick up former Washington Redskins coach and now Winston Cup car owner Joe Gibbs crashed, killing the two pilots, who have not been identified.
Gibbs was waiting at the track to fly to Tarpon Springs, Fla., to make a speaking appearance for one of his sponsors. When the copter was more than an hour late, Gibbs thought it had been delayed by fog, reported it and made other travel arrangements. While in Tarpon Springs, he learned of the crash.