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Sunday, October 21
Infraction found on Junior's car
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Only the rules could catch Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega Superspeedway.
The son of the late seven-time Winston Cup champion dominated at times in the EA Sports 500 on Sunday before bumping his way past both Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart on the last lap to reach Victory Circle.
It was 1/8-inch short of the minimum height requirement.
No. 8 crew chief Tony Eury Sr. was fined on Monday $25,000 for the rule violation.
No one on the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team had any comment Sunday on the infraction.
Earnhardt Jr.'s performance on the racetrack Sunday came almost exactly one year after his father -- who died in a crash during the Daytona 500 in February -- raced from 18th to first in the last five laps at Talladega for his 76th and final victory.
The youngster said it meant a lot to be compared with his father, one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, but he's definitely his own man.
"I feel good about my ability to drive race cars," the third-generation stock car driver said. "I'm not trying to be modest about that whatsoever. I'll be the first one to tell you I think I'm the best one out there."
He certainly was Sunday in the 188-lap race on the 2.66-mile oval.
"I want to go down as one of the best and, right now, I'm on track to do it," he noted, grinning.
This win was sweet validation for Earnhardt, whose July victory at Daytona was questioned because it came in the first race there since the elder Earnhardt's fatal crash in the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Jr. so dominated the Pepsi 400, some drivers wondered aloud whether NASCAR allowed him to use a more powerful engine. This time, on the only other track where engine rules restrict the speed of the cars, the victory didn't come easily.
"It was a rough race," Earnhardt said. "I wanted to win this one real bad because it was the same race my dad won last year. I just tried to back it up, you know."
For those who said his July victory was tainted, he said, "This put all those people in the beds they made. It feels good."
Labonte, with help from teammate Stewart, shot into the lead on lap 184 of the 188-lap event and Earnhardt, who had been in or near the lead all day, slid to fourth before mounting one last charge.
The 26-year-old took his Chevrolet into the outside groove and powered toward the front with help from Jeff Burton's Ford.
Earnhardt took second place on lap 186 and stayed there until he shouldered his way under Labonte's Pontiac as the leaders drove into turn one on the final lap.
As Earnhardt pulled away, chased by Stewart, Labonte drove high on the banked track to block Bobby Hamilton, who won here in April. They bumped, and Labonte's car slammed into the concrete wall near the exit of turn two and overturned.
"I tried to make a move on Bobby and he went high to block me and either I got under him or he got into me and we clogged the race track up," Hamilton said. "It scared the hell out of me because I looked back in the mirror and he was up in the air."
Stewart, the center of attention leading to the event because of his reluctance to wear a head and neck restraint, drove a strategic race. He was far back in the field of 43 until the last 35 laps, then charged into contention and finished second.
Stewart was able to edge half a car-length past Earnhardt in turn three on the final lap before Earnhardt bumped him off stride and left him behind.
"We got to beating and banging at the end," Earnhardt said. "I had to run into the side of the 18 (Labonte) and had to run into the side of the 20 car (Stewart), but they would have done the same thing, I feel like."
As a 16-car crash unfolded behind them, Earnhardt left Stewart behind in the third turn and cruised to his third victory of the season and fifth of his two-year career.
Stewart, the last holdout against wearing a HANS or Hutchens device to protect against head injuries, was forced to don one this weekend after NASCAR made it mandatory earlier in the week.
Although he was angry and had a confrontation with NASCAR officials on Friday, Stewart wore a Hutchens for the first time.
After seeing teammate Labonte crash, Stewart, who had refused to talk to the media all weekend, said, "I'm just glad to be alive after this one's over."
Burton wound up third, followed by Matt Kenseth, Hamilton, Kenny Wallace and Jeff Gordon, who ran through the middle of the last lap crash but increased his series lead over Rudd to 395 points with five races remaining.
It was a typical Talladega race, with most of the cars tightly bunched, often running four wide. There were 32 lead changes among 13 drivers, with three caution flags for a 16 laps.
About a half dozen drivers, most involved in the big crash, went to the NASCAR hauler following the race to complain loudly about the current aerodynamic rules and demand the sanctioning body make changes before the Daytona 500 in February.
"It ain't the drivers, it's NASCAR," Marlin said. "You run it all day, you're going to wreck. Every driver has been telling them in the NASCAR trailer that it's going to happen. ... They've got to fix it."
Hunter said the sanctioning body promised the organization would try, but added, "We don't like this any more than our drivers do but thus far we have been unable to come up with a solution."
Earnhardt, who average 164.185 mph, led a race-high 67 laps and won a $1 million bonus from the series sponsor, said, unlike Daytona in July, where he obviously had the most powerful car, he needed some help in this one.
"I guess I owe about half of this million dollars to Jeff Burton," Earnhardt said. "He helped me all day."Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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