SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- By the busload, the world's athletes and visitors rolled toward Sochi's airport and took off for home Monday, fresh from a Winter Games experience that many Russians pronounced a smashing success and that the Olympic movement's chief enthusiastically labeled a victory for the region and the host nation. "Yes! We did it!" one Olympic volunteer exulted as she darted into the night.
After 17 days of global sport and spotlight, Sochi ended the spirited chants of "Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!" and started cleaning up.
Travelers through the region's airport, rebuilt completely for the games, reported briskly moving security lines and check-in times of anywhere from 10 minutes to three hours, depending on destination. On what was predicted to be the heaviest Olympic-related travel day, the transit situation seemed to come down to this: It was like a busy morning at any normal big-city airport.
By the Black Sea coastline, Olympic Park, which will be hosting events at the upcoming Paralympic Games, had cleared out. Like the city of Sochi around it, the park felt deserted except for the legions of volunteers in multicolored patchwork jackets who still patrolled the area. Most security barriers remained in place in anticipation of the Paralympics, but security was noticeably more relaxed.
These Winter Games, Russian President Vladimir Putin's political showpiece and bragging trophy, convened under storm clouds - international concerns about gay rights and fears of a terror attack among them. But athletes overwhelmingly chose not to use the Olympic stage to make any statements, and the games opened and closed with vigorous (if sometimes spotty) security and no sign of any potentially violent activity.
When it came to logistics and sports, Russia outdid itself. Beyond initial grumblings about unfinished hotels and stray dogs, the Olympic infrastructure performed close to flawlessly. And the athletes: The home team claimed 33 medals, its largest haul ever - even counting the Soviet Union days - and a far cry from the 2010 performance in Vancouver that disappointed Putin and so many Russians.
"Russia has delivered on its promise," said Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organizing committee.
The successes - and a visually rich closing-ceremony tour through Russian history that ended with a handoff to the next Winter Games host city, Pyeongchang in South Korea - produced a party-like-it's-1999 atmosphere across the finally chilly Olympic Park during Monday's early hours.
Young Sochi Games volunteers, restrained and professional for 17 days, busted loose, running around outside Fisht Stadium with whoops, hollers and squeals. Selfies gave way to enthusiastic group shots - and group hugs. "Thank you for coming! Thank you for being here!" volunteers shouted to passing visitors as Olympic Park emptied out.
"Amazing. Look at this. Look at what we got done," said Viktor Virchenko, a heavily mustachioed folk dancer from nearby Stanitsa Leningradskaya who was cheerfully stalking Olympic Park early Monday in traditional woolen hat and 19th-century regalia. "I am very proud," he said.
IOC President Thomas Bach, closing the games Sunday night, eschewed the wording of predecessors that sometimes tried to assess the overall quality of a particular Olympics. Instead, he focused on calling them "the athletes' games" and spent many words praising both the region and Putin. Russia, Bach said, came through when it needed to.
"What took decades in other parts of the world was achieved here in Sochi in just seven years," he said.
Which raises the question: What happens to Sochi next, now that it has been effectively built up from scratch? After billions in investment and a world-class event pulled off successfully, it has a G-8 summit and Formula One racing just around the corner.
But can it be a resort region with long-term viability, or will it - despite its mountains and water so conveniently close together - suffer the fate of some other former Olympic cities and struggle to bring the masses to its doorstep? Bach, for one, says it "definitely has a future" after a previous bid and two decades of preparation.
"Seeing now, 20 years after this transformation, it was really amazing," he said in the hours before the Olympics ended. "And now it will be important to secure the legacy of this games."
Many Russians give all credit to Putin.
"Good for him, our president. He built all this, developed all this. We didn't have this kind of resort before," said Sergei Lesnikov, a 54-year-old hockey coach from the city of Kirov. ""After the Olympics it will remain. ... Tell your friends and family to come and see it here. It's not so bad."
And Russia itself? Though the memorable images of the Sochi Games include Cossack militiamen beating young women activists, the overall impression is one of competence, optimism - and, of course, athletic prowess.
The country's deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, paints a rosy picture of today's Russia - and tomorrow's: "The games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world."
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. cruised down pit road, stopping just long enough for Rick Hendrick to climb halfway inside his window for the short lift to Victory Lane.
Once there, Junior slipped from the beloved No. 88 Chevrolet, bounded past TV cameras and hugged every single crew member he could find to thank them for getting him his second Daytona 500 victory.
This was a celebration 10 years in the making.
It probably won't be the last this season.
And maybe not the biggest.
"We're going for the jugular this year," Earnhardt said after Sunday night's win in the season-opening Daytona 500.
NASCAR's most popular driver had to wait out a rain delay of more than six hours, then a chaotic close to end a 55-race drought dating back to 2012. His breakthrough win came at Daytona International Speedway, where he'd finished second in three of the previous four 500s and won "The Great American Race" a decade ago.
His emotions were clearly mixed in the moments after the finish. He screamed the win was better than the first as he took the checkered flag, then did an about-face in Victory Lane.
"I'm grateful to have one it twice now. I was grateful to have won it once," he said. "In about six months, I'll be as urgent to try to do it a third time as I was after the first."
When he finally arrived for his post-race news conference, soaked in beer and champagne nearly two hours after the win and a little over 11 hours after the race first began, he practically sprinted into the room. Arms raised, he yelled "Woo!"
"I bet someone hasn't come in here and screamed in 30 years," he said early Monday morning. "They used to!"
They were screaming as he crossed the finish line - those who stayed in the grandstands through the rain delay, and his die-hard fans all across the country.
"The world is right right now - Dale Junior just won the Daytona 500," teammate Jeff Gordon said. "That's a sign it's going to be a great season."
Rain stopped the race about 45 minutes after it began for a delay of more than six hours. When it resumed, Earnhardt dominated at the track where his father was killed in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 race.
He led six times for a race-high 54 laps - all after the rain delay - and seemed to have it under control until things got chaotic near the end. There were 42 lead changes and four multi-car accidents as the field closed in on the checkered flag.
An accident with seven laps to go triggered by pole-sitter Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 - Earnhardt's father's number made its return to the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2001 - set up a final two-lap shootout to the finish.
Earnhardt got a great jump past Brad Keselowski on the restart, and had Gordon behind him protecting his bumper. But Denny Hamlin came charging through the field and Earnhardt suddenly had a challenger with one lap to go.
Then an accident farther back involving former winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution and the win belonged to Earnhardt.
"We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart," Earnhardt said. "This is amazing. I can't believe this is happening. I never take this for granted, man because it doesn't happen twice, let alone once."
Hamlin, who won two other races in the buildup to Sunday and was trying to become the first driver to sweep Daytona, wound up second in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He was strongest before the rain delay, but had an issue with his radio when the race resumed and had difficulty hearing his spotter.
"It was tough and disappointing because I definitely could have used my spotter there at the end," Hamlin said. "I'm trying to look up at the scoreboard, trying to figure out how many laps are left. I'm so 50-50 on whether I'm (mad) or I'm happy. I just don't know. Any other year, I probably would have been jumping up and down."
Keselowski finished third in a Team Penske Ford, and said after watching a replay he knew he had no chance to win once drivers behind him committed to their moves and Hamlin came charging alongside him.
"I don't feel like there's anything I could have done differently," Keselowski said.
But as a driver who got his break when Earnhardt hired him to drive for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, Keselowski was able to deal with his disappointment.
"If there's ever a guy who is due, it's the guy who finished second three out of the last four years. He was due," Keselowski said. "So I'm happy for him and happy for all those guys. He's probably my best friend in the garage outside of my teammate."
Hendrick took fourth and fifth with Gordon and last year's race winner, Jimmie Johnson, in what quickly became a company-wide celebration.
"He's been knocking on the door of the 500 for a lot of years. He got it done tonight - did an awesome job," said Johnson, who beat Earnhardt to the finish line a year ago.
The win means Hendrick already has one of his four drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Under the new win-and-get-in format announced last month, Earnhardt is now eligible to race for the title and can spend the next 25 races preparing for the postseason.
"We might be in the Chase - I ain't going to worry about that," Earnhardt said from Victory Lane. "Trust me, man, we're going to have a blast this year."
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) -- Ted Ligety won the giant slalom at the Sochi Games with a dominating performance Wednesday, becoming the first American man to win two Olympic gold medals in Alpine skiing.
Leading after the first run, Ligety sped down the Rosa Khutor course in a two-leg combined time of 2 minutes, 45.29 seconds.
Steve Missillier of France finished second, 0.48 behind, and Alexis Pinturault, also of France, was third, 0.64 behind.
Overall World Cup leader Marcel Hirscher of Austria finished fourth, 0.94 behind.
Ligety's first gold came in combined at the 2006 Turin Games as a 21-year-old - before he had ever won a World Cup race.
The only other American to win two Olympic golds in Alpine skiing was Andrea Mead Lawrence, who took both the women's slalom and giant slalom at the 1952 Oslo Games.
Four other American men - Bode Miller, Phil Mahre, Tommy Moe and Bill Johnson - have won one Olympic gold.
Ligety had such a large lead after the opening run - 0.93 seconds - that he could afford to ease up a bit on his second trip down, when he was only 14th fastest. But that was more than enough to give the U.S. its first gold in Alpine skiing of the Sochi Games.
Ligety celebrated by swirling around in the finish area while still on his skis then raised his arms while sitting down on the snow. The crowd realized he had won even before he crossed the line, and showered him with applause for the last few gates.
Conditions were perfect, with the temperature hovering near the freezing level and skies partly cloudy.
In both runs, Ligety showed off his unparalleled technique of arcing turns, leaning down and touching the snow with his hips, gloves and thighs at every opportunity to get the best angles. Other skiers displayed sharper turns but Ligety's were far more fluid.
"Ted goes so round that his turn is naturally a longer radius," said Miller, who finished 20th in what he said was his final race in Sochi. "He generates more speed and links one turn to the next and because he has so much space, he never pinches or gets in trouble because he's always way far from the gate."
Ligety has been the best giant slalom skier for several years, although after failing to win a medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games, this was his crowning achievement.
Ligety won nine of 14 World Cup giant slalom races this season and last season. He took gold in GS at the last two world championships and won the season-long World Cup title in the discipline four of the last six years.
"I think he's one of the best GS skiers in history," Miller said. "He's so much better at it than everybody else. ... He just is so consistent. He makes no errors."
At last year's worlds in Schladming, Austria, Ligety also won gold in super-G and super-combined, making him the first man with at least three golds at a worlds since Jean Claude Killy earned four back in 1968.
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Saint Louis University is riding a 17-game winning steak to a Top 10 rankings.
The Billikens have a record of 23-2 and a perfect 10-and-oh in the Atlantic 10. The Bills sit at number 10 in the latest AP poll. Syracuse remains undefeated and still sits atop the poll. SLU heads to George Mason on Wednesday.