Earnhardt gets emotional win at Dover

DOVER, Del. (AP) _ Cal Ripken Jr. was thrilled to wave the green flag to start the NASCAR race named in his honor. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was even more emotional circling the track with the American flag after

Monday, September 24th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

DOVER, Del. (AP) _ Cal Ripken Jr. was thrilled to wave the green flag to start the NASCAR race named in his honor. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was even more emotional circling the track with the American flag after one of the most popular victories in the history of the sport.

Earnhardt, inspired by Old Glory and flag-waving fans, won the Cal Ripken Jr. 400 on Sunday as NASCAR raced for the first time since the terrorist attacks.

Adding to the excitement of the dramatic day, Earnhardt's car is No. 8, the same number Ripken has worn throughout his record-setting career with the Baltimore Orioles.

Ripken started the $3.3 million race and was taken to Orioles Park by helicopter, arriving at 4 p.m., three hours before the first pitch against the New York Yankees.

``It was a fabulous experience,'' he said. ``Starting the race was a powerful experience. When they drove by on the second lap at 150 mph, it's enough to make you go, `Wow!'

``As a baseball player, I've been afforded some overwhelming experiences,'' he said. ``Today was one of the greatest ever.''

Earnhardt gave the 140,000 flag-waving fans everything they wanted, except doughnuts.

Those wheel-spinning, tire smoking maneuvers that have become so popular among winners were not favored by his father, who was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500.

``My dad told me last year after I won the Winston not to do any more doughnuts because it was so hard on the motors,'' he said.

So, he just circled the track holding a large American flag out the window. He wanted to be more dramatic, but didn't think it was appropriate because so many people have suffered from the attacks.

``The Formula One guys didn't spray champagne last week in Victory Lane,'' he explained.

Still, there was plenty of excitement _ even before the $3.3 million race.

The crowd was fired-up by Lee Greenwood's stirring rendition of ``God Bless the USA.''

``When Lee Greenwood finished his song I had tears in my eyes,'' said second-place finisher Jerry Nadeau.

Tanya Tucker followed Greenwood with a patriotic medley as the crowd continued chanting ``USA! ... USA! ... USA!'' before standing silently as she sang the national anthem.

``It was so exciting to see the emotion of the fans,'' Earnhardt said. ``It's amazing how everybody has come together after what has happened the last two weeks.

``I'm just proud to be an American.''

Earnhardt's car, carrying a large flag deal on its rear decklid, dominated much of the race usually known as the MBNA.com 400. He led 193 of 400 laps, and by donating $100 per lap gave $40,000 to aid a relief fund for victims of the attacks. He also had several pit stops under 14 seconds, which through another commitment raised his total donation to about $80,000.

It was the second emotional victory this season for Earnhardt. He also won the Pepsi 400 in July on the return of the Winston Cup cars to the track where his father, a seven-time series champion, died Feb. 18.

The 26-year-old Earnhardt dominated the first half of this race, but lost seven positions with a very slow pit stop on lap 269. But he got a break when leader Ricky Rudd was hit by Rusty Wallace and spun on lap 345.

``He got a fender on us and took the race away from us,'' said Rudd, who had words with Wallace after the race.

Earnhardt came out of the pits third on lap 347, passed Nadeau and took the lead when he blew by Dale Jarrett on the high-banked third turn on lap 362.

The crowd rose to its feet screaming with delight, and Earnhardt didn't disappoint them, withstanding a final caution that bunched the field when Jarrett spun on lap 388.

But Earnhardt pulled away and won for the fourth time in his career when his Chevrolet beat Nadeau's by 1.576 seconds.

``I had nothing for Junior,'' Nadeau said. ``He had the best car. He was so fast on old tires and new tires.''

Earnhardt then drove around with the flag as the crowd _ many dressed in red, white and blue _ roared its approval.

``Sometimes we don't do so good at the end,'' he said. ``But this time the car was really running good when it counted.''

Rudd was third in a Ford, followed by the Chevy of points leader and June Dover winner Jeff Gordon.

Defending race champion Tony Stewart was fifth in a Pontiac.

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