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Junior, Edwards willing to lend helping hand

HAMPTON, Ga. -- If Tony Stewart wins the Nextel Cup
championship by five points, he might want to thank good friend
Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Stewart picked up five bonus points when Earnhardt appeared to let the No. 20 car go by for the lead in the early going of
Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt, who clearly had the stronger machine, quickly
reclaimed the top spot from Stewart on the way to leading a
race-high 142 laps.

For Stewart, it was the only lap he led all day. It could be an
important one, since he leads the 10-man Chase by 43 points with
only three races remaining.

Earnhardt didn't qualify for the Chase, so he appeared to be
extending a favor to a friend -- an unspoken but common tactic in a
sport where alliances and team considerations often take precedence
over true racing.

A similar situation came up late in the event. Carl Edwards, the
eventual winner, was passed by Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth
36 laps from the finish.

Like Stewart, Kenseth held his only lead of the race for only
one lap. Edwards led 83 of the last 84 laps -- and appeared to have
a little trouble getting his story straight after the race.

Asked if he let Kenseth go by, Edwards insisted that he didn't.

"He thought I did, which is awesome," the winner said. "I saw
his finger sticking out. I was like, 'Why is he giving me the
finger?' I kind of moved over a little bit and I could see his
knuckles, and he was giving me the pointer finger, like, 'OK, just
give me a minute.' I was thinking, 'OK, now I see what's going on.
He wants to lead a lap.'"

Edwards acknowledged that it wasn't tough getting the lead back
from Kenseth.

"I got up beside him and he didn't fight me too hard," Edwards
said. "He could have held us up and made it harder, but that was
very nice of him and I was glad to let him lead a lap."

So, he did let Kenseth lead a lap, right?

"My teammates have done so much for me that I really think
trying to help them in a position when I can help them is the right
thing to do," Edwards said. "I'm not saying I always will."

At this point, team owner Jack Roush and crew chief Bob Osborne
were urging Edwards to plead the Fifth.

"They're yelling at me to quit talking," Edwards said. "So
I'm going to stop."

Reed's debut
Reed Sorenson got to make his Nextel Cup debut
at his home track, but it didn't last nearly as long as he hoped.

Sorenson, a 19-year-old native of nearby Peachtree City, wrecked
after completing only 133 laps and called it a day. He finished
41st in the 43-car field.

"In your first race, you want to run all 500 miles," Sorenson
said. "That's a win for the first race."

The teenager got tangled up with Kasey Kahne in turn three and
there was no need to return to the track for points since Sorenson
isn't a Cup regular.

That happens in 2006, when he'll move up from the NASCAR Busch
Series.

Sorenson has made a meteoric rise in the sport. Before he was
old enough to have a driver's license, he raced on the quarter-mile
layout at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Building momentum
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon is
showing that he intends to be a strong contender -- in 2006.

Gordon, who didn't qualify for the championship Chase this year,
followed up a win at Martinsville, Va., with a second-place finish in
Atlanta.

"I feel like our 2006 started when this Chase started," Gordon
said. "By not making the Chase, we were able to really regroup and
make a bunch of changes -- not just personnel changes, but with the
race cars themselves."

After the last race before the Chase, Gordon switched crew
chiefs. Steve Letarte took over for Robbie Loomis, who announced he
was moving to Petty Enterprises in 2006.

Gordon and Letarte seem to be building a long-term relationship.

"He just continues to impress the heck out of me," Gordon
said. "He's just going a great job getting information from me and
making great adjustments. He's keeping the guys pumped up."

Back of the pack
Bobby Hamilton Jr. started from the back of
the field.

He couldn't complain. At least he was in the race.

Hamilton failed to qualify for the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, but
he took over the spot that Chad Chaffin earned during time trials.

Chaffin was set to start 43rd in the No. 92 Chevrolet, but his
car owner, Bob Jenkins, worked out a deal a few weeks ago with PPI
Motorsports, Hamilton's team. When Hamilton didn't qualify, Chaffin
gave up his spot.

Hamilton didn't come close to his goal of a top-25 finish. He
had an engine problem and wound up 39th.

Kevin Harvick also was forced to the back of the field after
changing an engine before the race. He managed to move up from 42nd
to 22nd.

Darby absent
John Darby, director of the NASCAR Nextel Cup
series, wasn't at the race following the death of his mother.

His role was filled by Wayne Auton, who normally directs the
Craftsman Truck Series.

The series director works in the control tower with NASCAR
president Mike Helton, race director David Hoots and other
officials.

They make the call on caution flags, rules violations and other
issues that come up during a race.