Formula One
 Sunday, March 12
Earnhardt wins thriller by inches in Atlanta news services

  • Go back to Tuesday's decision by NASCAR to extend the Chevrolet's air dam two inches. Intended to give the Monte Carlos more downforce -- which it did, Chevy put six cars in the top 10 -- the unexpected advantage for Earnhardt at least came at the finish line where he won by the length of a bumper. That same remodeled bumper. But, there's no debating the rule change turned Chevy into a contender Sunday. Earnhardt, however, saved his No. 3 several times, making contact with teammate Mike Skinner and Joe Nemechek during the race. The call to change all four tires by crew chief Kevin Hamlin also was key, as Earnhardt had just enough "freshness" to keep Labonte at bay over the final nine laps.
    The pits have been a dangerous place all season for crew members. Atlanta's pit road was tough on cars, as drivers played bumper cars during stops all day. Dale Jarrett bent his Ford when he got into Stacy Compton during a stop; Bill Elliott tapped Scott Pruett leaving his box a few laps later; and Kenny Wallace came to a complete stop on pit road to avoid causing a major incident. The scariest moment, however, came when Bobby Hamilton drove through a fire in the No. 60 car's pit area and drove a full lap with a flaming catch can still attached to his car.
  • Where's DJ? That's the question coming out of Atlanta, as the defending champion dropped out of the top 5. Another Dale, meanwhile, moved up to third.
    1. Bobby Labonte, 665
    2. Mark Martin, 647
    3. Dale Earnhardt, 597
    4. Bill Elliott, 557
    5. Ward Burton, 548
  • Both Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Matt Kenseth were among the 17 drivers to lead a lap on Sunday. Neither, however, finished as strong as they started. Little E brushed the wall on lap 29, cut a brake line, spent three laps slowing down enough to enter the pits, and then another 15 laps behind the wall. He finished 29th. Kenseth led his first Winston Cup lap before going behind the wall on lap 199 with engine problems. He finished 40th. Dave Blaney saved his day by avoiding a spinning Ted Musgrave, brushing the wall, but staying on pace to post a 20th-place finish. Jeff Fuller was also running at the end in 22nd place, while Stacy Compton's day ended early in the 35th spot.
  • The list of candidates for the afternoon's "Tough Luck Award" is long: Jeff Burton, Jerry Nadeau, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jr. ... but nobody had more reason to be frustrated than Mike Skinner. Skinner appeared headed toward his first Winston Cup victory in 103 starts, leading his 191st lap when his engine blew up with just 19 laps remaining.
  • Bright sunshine should have been Jeff Burton's first clue. Last week's winner in the rain was leading again Sunday when he cut a right-rear tire, hit the wall on lap 68 and was done for the day. Burton finished dead last.
  • Results

    HAMPTON, Ga. -- After being criticized for dull and boring races, the NASCAR Winston Cup series delivered the most competitive event of the season Sunday.

    Dale Earnhardt won the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in one of the closest finishes in Winston Cup history, defeating Bobby Labonte by .010 seconds.

    Labonte, who had won four of the last seven Winston Cup events at Atlanta, trailed Earnhardt by about one car-length as the leaders began their final trip around the 1.54-mile oval at more than 184 mph. With Labonte just a few feet back, the masterful Earnhardt using every bit of the racetrack, somehow kept his Chevrolet just ahead of Labonte's Pontiac to the finish.

    Labonte pulled alongside on the final lap, but was unable to put his nose in front at the line. It was the 75th career Winston Cup victory and ninth at this track for Earnhardt, who started 35th. To put the result in perspective, the two cars crossed the finish line side by side with the nose of Earnhardt's Chevrolet some eight inches ahead of Labonte's bumper.

    "It was an incredible finish," said the grinning 48-year-old Earnhardt, almost breathless as he climbed from his car. "I was just running and holding Bobby Labonte off. We went at it as hard as we could. That is what we had to do. Mike Skinner had run awfully well all day long, but we were able to get to Victory Lane.

    "Mike Skinner had the car to beat, and then he broke something in the engine. Bobby Labonte was strong after three or four laps. I found a groove and I was holding him off. That was good racing, that was close."

    Labonte, who leads the season standings after the first four races, was visibly disappointed after a strong showing. Asked if he knew who won the close finish, the younger brother of two-time series champion Terry Labonte, shrugged and said, "I couldn't tell. I haven't seen a replay and I don't care to. I just came up a little short.

    "I was flat out as hard as I could go just to keep up with him. That last eight laps were just flat out, no holding back."

    Through the first three races of the season, NASCAR's top division had been criticized for what some media and fans said was boring and uneven racing, with Fords and Pontiacs supposedly holding an aerodynamic advantage over the new Monte Carlos.

    A rule change earlier this week, allowing the Chevy teams to move their front air dams up to 2 inches in front of the bumper, appeared to do the trick on Sunday, with a season-high 30 lead changes among 17 drivers and lots of action producing 10 caution flags.

    But the driver who led the most was Skinner, who was in front for 191 laps of the 325-lap race before his engine blew up just 20 laps from his first career victory.

    That came one lap after a restart following a caution flag after Michael Waltrip's engine blew on lap 298. The leaders pitted on lap 300 and Earnhardt told his crew to change all four tires, rather than only two. Although that put Earnhardt fourth on the restart on lap 304, he immediately passed Mark Martin in the second turn and Labonte for second place on the same lap.

    Moments later, Skinner's race ended in a puff of smoke from the engine.

    Earlier, Skinner and Earnhardt were involved in an on-track altercation that caused Earnhardt to shake his fist at Skinner, who was trying to block his teammate's Chevrolet.

    "Pow, no warning whatsoever," Skinner said of his engine. "I ran the Chevrolet as hard as it would go. That's all we had, it just came up 20 laps short. It's a pretty stout car. It's a shame. I don't know what I've done, I'm sure sorry. I've got a monkey on my back, I'll tell you.

    "I'd crash my mom to win my first race. Dale did what he had to do and I did what he had to do. I'm sure he'd do the same thing to me. I wasn't going to wreck him."

    Dale Earnhardt
    Dale Earnhardt's black No. 3 edges Bobby Labonte's Pontiac at the finish line Sunday.
    The green flag waved on lap 313 with Earnhardt in front, followed by Labonte's Pontiac. Martin, Steve Park and Ken Schrader rounded out the top five.

    One lap later, Labonte used a high line in an attempt to go around Earnhardt for the lead. Earnhardt's Chevrolet ran better on the low side and maintained its position.

    But on lap 316, Labonte went high and Earnhardt went to block him. Labonte was able to pass Earnhardt on the backstretch, but the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion did not give in as he put his Chevrolet around the high side of Turns 3 and 4 to regain the lead at the start-finish line.

    Earnhardt began to pull away from Labonte's Pontiac, building a five-car length advantage. But on the white-flag lap, Labonte closed to his bumper, drew up to the side of Earnhardt's car and the two raced side by side through Turns 3 and 4 before crossing the finish line two abreast.

    Mark Martin's Ford wound up third, followed by the Monte Carlos of Steve Park -- driving a car owned by Earnhardt -- and Joe Nemechek, the Ford of Chad Little and the Chevy of Todd Bodine, the last driver on the lead lap.

    The victory was the 75th of Earnhardt's career and his ninth -- extending his own record -- at the Atlanta track. But it was his first here since March of 1996, 19 months before the track was reconfigured.

    Among the other drivers who ran into problems on Sunday was pole-winner Dale Jarrett, the defending series champion, who fell far off the pace after colliding with another car on pit road during his first pit stop and then went out of the race on lap 260 with a blown engine. The 36th-place finish ended a string of 36 consecutive races in which Jarrett was running at the finish.

    Rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started a career-best second, led laps 16-23 before breaking a brake line and banging the turn two wall on lap 29. It took 15 laps to get him back onto the track and the 25-year-old finished 29th.

    Jeff Burton, who won the race a week earlier in Las Vegas, worked his way from 29th at the start to the lead and was out front on lap 69 when a cut tire sent him skidding backward into the turn-three wall. Burton climbed from his car and banged his right fist onto the top of the Taurus in frustration. He finished last in the 43-car field.

    Notebook: Jarrett suffers through rare bad day

    Ask Bill Weber

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