Dale Earnhardt Jr and the No.8 Budweiser DEI team never got a handle on the new high banks of the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway and finished 24th in Sunday's Ford 400. Although the excellent pit work of the #8 team coupled with more ill-luck for Michael Waltrip secured the inaugural McDonald's Drive-Thru Pit Crew Championship, another strong run by Jimmie Johnson ensured that the #8 team finished third, not second in the final standings.

Bobby Labonte won Sunday's Ford 400 at Miami-Homestead Speedway, taking the lead on the final lap of the season when the dominant car of Bill Elliott slowed with a cut tyre. Kevin Harvick finished second while Jimmie Johnson finished third.

Although NASCAR will not make the results official for several days, the No. 8 Bud team secured the 2003 McDonald's Drive-Thru Pit Crew Championship.

The team entered the day tied for the lead in the pit crew competition with their Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammates on the No. 15 NAPA team, who dropped out of the race on lap 72. The pit crew championship is worth $200,000 in prize money. In addition, the No. 8 team won the weekly pit competition five times this year for an additional $100,000.

Dale Jr. started 38th, then gradually worked his way through traffic on the new high-banked Homestead surface. He first cracked the top-20 on lap 36, then clawed as high as 13th position on lap 47 before beginning to experience tire and handling problems with the Budweiser car. The team struggled all afternoon to get the car to turn efficiently into the corners, causing the car to push, and damaging the left front tire during each run.

Dale Jr. was as high as 12th position on lap 182 (of 267) before he was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop on lap 186, dropping two laps behind the leaders. After dropping as low as 30th, Dale Jr, managed to hang on for the remaining laps to finish 24th.

"It feels like the last day of school," he said afterwards. "I'm goin' home to celebrate. We were never very good today, but third-place in points is something I'm really proud of. It shows what a great season we had, how much we improved as a team and how we were able to run competitively week after-week, a lot more consistent than before. We wanted to win the championship, but third is something we can really build on."

"It's a great track but we never hit on the set-up. We tore up the left-front tire every time. We could only do about 45 laps before the left front would start coming apart, and that's how we lost the two laps. We had a top-10 car as far as speed, but we made that one unscheduled stop and it just killed us."

 

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