TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat in his car for
what seemed like an eternity. He ran his hands through his hair,
then buried his face in them.
When he finally climbed out, he took a long look at the damage
on his Chevrolet, circling the red No. 8 to find every dent.
Earnhardt officially handed over his throne as the king of
restrictor-plate racing to Jeff Gordon, who won at Talladega
Superspeedway on Sunday for his fourth victory in the last five
Earnhardt finished a distant 15th after he was involved in a
six-car accident in the closing laps.
"We didn't have a good car at all,'' Earnhardt said, his voice
thick with disappointment. "Jeff's car was awesome and when you
get those kind of cars, you get the wins.''
Earnhardt was unable to explain the falloff of his car, which is
routinely the strongest at Talladega and Daytona, the only two
places NASCAR requires horsepower-sapping restrictor plates.
Earnhardt has five Talladega wins and two at Daytona.
"Nothing is wrong, it just ain't the best,'' he said. "It's
good, but it ain't the best. We used to have the best.''
Did that mean that Gordon had passed him as the best plate racer
in the Nextel Cup series?
"It's pretty obvious to me,'' he muttered. "Do I even need to
answer that question?''
Earnhardt had an off weekend, qualifying 36th for the race. He
didn't need long to move toward the front, but struggled to take
the lead and did so just one time for three laps. And unlike past
years, when drivers all tried to move onto his rear bumper and let
Earnhardt pull them to a high finish, Junior found he had few
friends out on the track.
"Everybody wants to win, it ain't push Dale to victory,'' he
said. "We didn't have a good car, that was part of it. They'll
push you if you are fast, but they get tired of pushing you if you
Not everyone was quick to dismiss Junior, though.
Tony Stewart has often teamed up with Earnhardt at plate races,
and tried doing it several times on Sunday.
"The times we were together today we weren't as potent a
combination as we were in the past, but I wouldn't say it was
over,'' said Stewart, who finished second. "I don't think you can
take two races and say it's over. I wouldn't count him out yet.''
Michael Waltrip didn't share his teammate's
complaints about the Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars not being up to par
anymore at restrictor-plate races.
Waltrip's car was good enough to finish third on Sunday and put
him in position where he believed he could make a run at
race-winner Jeff Gordon.
His teammate, Earnhardt Jr., finished 15th after an accident and
said the DEI cars weren't as good as Gordon.
"Could we use some more horsepower? Shoot yeah,'' said Waltrip,
who started in the 38th position. "Horsepower's pretty cool. But
these cars are pretty darn good the way they are.''
Even with him giving runner-up Tony Stewart a nudge, Waltrip and
Stewart couldn't make up enough ground during the overtime laps,
set up after Earnhardt was involved in a six-car accident near the
Waltrip said that was more a credit to Gordon than an indication
his own car wasn't up to speed.
He said he was so close to Stewart he couldn't see much beyond
the No. 20 car's rear bumper, but "I just kept thinking any minute now we're
going to pull up on Gordon.
"That tells you that Jeff's car was a little bit faster than
everybody's today, but my car was plenty fast,'' Waltrip said. "My
car was plenty fast to win but I couldn't catch Gordon.''
Often second best
Tony Stewart scoffed at any suggestion he hasn't
been successful at Talladega because he's never won here.
Despite missing out on Victory Lane, Stewart does have four
runner-up finishes and eight top 10s in 13 races at Talladega.
"As many second-place finishes as we have, 41 guys didn't have
it as good as we had it those days,'' Stewart said. "A lot of the
days we ran second here, it was as good as a win for us. Today, for
example, we didn't have the best car here and we got second place.
"That was the best we could do, and we're leaving with smiles
on our faces.''
Actually, the sometimes contrary driver has a great time at
Talladega -- away from reporters, at least. He shuts his cell phone
off, goes fishing with Hall of Fame racer Red Farmer and enjoys the
calm of rural Alabama.
"It's a week for me to get away,'' Stewart said.
It was just another Talladega trial for Rusty
Wallace. The veteran driver finished 22nd in Sunday's race, giving
him only two more cracks at his first career victory at a
Wallace, in his final season as a Nextel Cup driver, has
finished in the top five just once in 44 races at Talladega and
that came 17 years ago. He is also 0-for-43 at Daytona.
"I've had some good runs here, and I had a real good run at
Daytona and finished 10th,'' Wallace said. "But this place here,
they get compact and everybody gets real crowded. It's a lot to ask
people to run that close that long.''
Turn this car over
Casey Mears walked away unscathed from a scary accident in the Busch Series race that sent his car sliding
down the track on its roof for several hundred yards.
Mears called Saturday's slide "pretty wild,'' but had harsher
words for the emergency crews that rushed to his aid. Although he
praised their response time, Mears was upset because the workers
didn't help him get out of the car.
"The guy was just looking at me, he had no idea what to do,''
Mears said. "I kept yelling for them to turn the car over so I
could get out, but everyone was just staring at me. I had to take
my helmet off and wiggle out of the car.
"That could have been a real problem if the car had been on
fire, or had hot oil spilling all over me. None of them had any
idea what to do, and they needed to turn the car over so I could
NASCAR officials said the emergency crews would almost never
turn a car over with the driver inside because at that moment, they
have no idea the extent of the drivers' injuries. Flipping the car
could risk doing further damage.
Mears thinks that needs to be looked at.
"There was no way for me to get out of that car when it was on
its roof without taking my helmet off,'' Mears said. "If I had to
get out of there fast, or if the car was on fire, they would have
had a real problem.''
The jack man for Jeff Burton's team was injured when Rusty Wallace hit him during a pit stop. Josh Yost had torn
ligaments and a severe cut on his right ankle. ... Tony Stewart was
the big climber in the points standings, jumping eight spots to
sixth after his second-place finish. ... Kevin Harvick started from
the pole, but battled early overheating problems that forced him to
drop to the back. He was still in contention, though, until he was
involved in a late accident that caused him to finish 12th.