Randy LaJoie knew a third trip to the Daytona winner's circle wouldn't be easy.
Then his boss, Joe Nemechek, handed him an unexpected bonus: a free pass to victory in Saturday's season-opening Busch Series race.
With LaJoie in the lead on the next-to-last lap, Nemechek wrecked on the backstretch, eliminating the rest of the contenders. The race finished under a caution flag.
"I got a heck of a break for the first time," LaJoie said.
Matt Kenseth, the defending champion of the NAPA Auto Parts 300, was third behind LaJoie and Nemechek as the cars raced down the backstretch. Kenseth tried to pass Nemechek, who moved low on the track to block, and they made contact.
Nemechek spun and hit Jeff Purvis, who had dominated the race in a tune-up for a rare Winston Cup appearance in the season-opening Daytona 500.
"They always seem to pick on the Busch drivers, and this is our living," Purvis said. "I'm going to run Winston Cup tomorrow, and if I wreck some of them they better not say anything."
After the accident, all LaJoie had to do was race a final half-mile to the line for what he considered an improbable victory.
He fell to the back earlier in the race because of a shuffle during a pit stop that came right before a one-hour, 28-minute rain delay. Then it got worse.
A tire got away during another pit stop and he was sent to the back of the field again because of the penalty to his crew.
Winston Cup regular Nemechek said he wasn't surprised LaJoie was able to fight his way back from the rear of the field twice.
"We hired him because he can win, and he's going to win a lot of races this year," the boss said.
The victory was the 14th for LaJoie, a two-time series champion who also won the race in 1997 and 1999.
"I think I'll take next year off and come back here in 2003," LaJoie said, joking about his ability to win in odd-numbered years.
Nemechek started on the pole and led early, but gave way to Purvis. Still Nemechek was never far from the front, racing in the top three for most of the day.
He said he would have tried to make a move on LaJoie if he hadn't wrecked.
"Ain't nobody going to give a race away," Nemechek said.
LaJoie certainly wasn't.
"My leg was so long, it almost went through the firewall," he said.
The victory was the first in the race for a Pontiac since Dale Earnhardt in 1986.
Kevin Harvick was second in a Chevrolet, followed by that of Kenseth. Defending series champion Jeff Green finished fourth in a Ford, extending his winless streak at Daytona to eight races.
The winner averaged 135.152 mph in a race slowed six times by 23 caution laps. There were eight lead changes among seven drivers.
Jeff Gordon hovered over his car Saturday evening, a worried look on his face. He wondered what a blown engine in the final practice meant for his chances in today's Daytona 500.
"They call it Happy Hour, but I'm not real happy right now," said Gordon, a two-time race winner and one of the favorites.
The engine in his Chevrolet Monte Carlo blew between turns 1 and 2, forcing him to scrape the outside wall to avoid getting hit by a pack of cars.
Gordon and his crew weren't too concerned about putting in a new motor and knocking out the dents. They did want to make sure there was nothing in the setup that caused the problem.
Ray Evernham won't have to watch the clock anymore.
The car owner used a sledgehammer Saturday to smash a 500-day timepiece that counted down Dodge's return to NASCAR Winston Cup racing after a 16-year absence.
"We made it," Evernham said. "Everyone has done a good job. The ceremonial breaking of the clock was just for fun. We've got to get serious for tomorrow."
Evernham Motorsports will make its debut from the pole today. Bill Elliott was the fastest qualifier for the 500, while his teammate, Casey Atwood, starts in the 21st position.
Repairs on Dale Jarrett's wrecked car were completed in time for Saturday's final practice. He crashed near the end of a Thursday qualifying race, damaging the left side of his Ford. . . . Fox, criticized for selective use of sponsor logos last weekend, didn't use graphics of any cars during pre-race introductions for Saturday's Busch race. . . . Bobby Hamilton, slowed this week by the flu, still managed to race in the Busch event. He finished 42nd out of 43.
Daytona 500 Lineup
Lineup determined by combination of qualifying speeds and finishes in twin 125 qualifying races; provisionals based on 2000 car-owner points.
1 9 Bill ElliottDodge 183.565 mph
2 92 Stacy ComptonDodge 182.682
3 40 Sterling MarlinDodge
4 31 Mike SkinnerChevrolet
5 25 Jerry NadeauChevrolet
6 8 Dale Earnhardt Jr.Chevrolet
7 3 Dale EarnhardtChevrolet
8 99 Jeff BurtonFord
9 96 Andy HoustonFord
10 22 Ward BurtonDodge
11 26 Jimmy SpencerFord
12 2 Rusty WallaceFord
13 24 Jeff GordonChevrolet
14 36 Ken SchraderPontiac
15 01 Jason LefflerDodge
16 17 Matt KensethFord
17 51 Jeff PurvisFord
18 32 Ricky CravenFord
19 15 Michael WaltripChevrolet
20 93 Dave BlaneyDodge
21 19 Casey AtwoodDodge
22 6 Mark MartinFord
23 27 Kenny WallacePontiac
24 20 Tony StewartPontiac
25 1 Steve ParkChevrolet
26 97 Kurt BuschFord
27 7 Mike WallaceFord
28 45 Kyle PettyDodge
29 44 Buckshot JonesDodge
30 28 Ricky RuddFord
31 88 Dale JarrettFord 182.622
32 33 Joe NemechekChevrolet 182.116
33 10 Johnny BensonPontiac 181.995
34 5 Terry LabonteChevrolet 181.811
35 55 Bobby HamiltonChevrolet 181.664
36 43 John AndrettiDodge 181.576
37 18 Bobby LabontePontiac provisional
38 12 Jeremy MayfieldFord provisional
39 77 Robert PressleyFord provisional
40 21 Elliott SadlerFord provisional
41 4 Robby GordonChevrolet provisional
42 14 Ron Hornaday Jr.Pontiac provisional
43 11 Brett BodineFord provisional