BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. never denied his team
was struggling. He never pretended he was a favorite for the Nextel
He instead accepted the No. 8 Chevrolet's slump, then set out to
Earnhardt broke out of a six-week slump Saturday night with a
convincing victory in the Sharpie 500, giving him a weekend sweep
at Bristol Motor Speedway and momentum for the upcoming
"This is huge for me, it's awesome for our team,'' Earnhardt
Jr. said. "The team really needed that. I watched my Daddy race
here so many times ... wherever he's at, he's laughing at this
His team was in a freefall, and nothing the driver or crew tried
could fix it.
This ought to do it.
"This team is tough as nails!'' he screamed in Victory Lane.
"Man, we needed this. This is one of the biggest wins of my
"You can't be No. 1 all the time. That's what makes it
Almost completely healed from burns he suffered last month in a
non-NASCAR wreck, Earnhardt led 295 of the 500 laps for his first
Nextel Cup win at Bristol. He'll stick the trophy right next to the
one he earned Friday night for winning his first Busch series race
on the 0.533-mile bullring.
He beat Ryan Newman to the finish line in a race that didn't
shake up the championship standings as much as predicted.
Newman, fighting to become eligible for NASCAR's 10-race
championship chase, moved into contention by jumping three spots to
the cutoff position of 10th. It came at the expense of rookie Kasey
Kahne, who finished 21st and fell to 11th in standings.
It was the only major change in the standings as drivers
scramble to make it into the top 10 with just two races to go
before the playoffs begin.
Kahne is 26 points out of the top 10 and Jeremy Mayfield, his
teammate, is right behind in 12th place in the standings. But time
is running out on the Evernham Motorsports pair, and everyone else
behind them, too.
The name of the game now is putting together solid runs and
getting teams in sync right before the chase begins. Jimmie Johnson
did it by ending his streak of three straight DNF's with a
But it was Junior who made the loudest statement by pulling off
a win when almost everyone had written the team off.
It didn't help that his legs were so badly burned in a practice
session for a sports car race in California that Earnhardt twice
had to give way to a relief driver, too hurt and too frustrated to
stay in his car.
Things started to get better two weeks ago with a fifth-place
finish on the demanding road course at Watkins Glen.
Now comes this win, which had Earnhardt almost giddy in Victory
The win came on the fifth anniversary of the late Dale
Earnhardt's final Bristol victory. He earned it by knocking Terry
Labonte out of the lead on the final lap of the race, a move that
earned the popular driver a chorus of boos in Victory Lane.
The crowd's reaction was much different for this Earnhardt, who
delighted them with a series of burnouts and was treated to
deafening cheers when he got out of his car.
"I've come to a lot of races here when my dad drove,'' Junior
said. "He made this place magical to an Earnhardt fan, me being
one of them.
"I might not have done like he did it just now, but it was
There was some drama for a few of the championship contenders.
Pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, the points leader who was seeking his
series-best sixth win of the season, was black-flagged late in the
race for lining up in the wrong place on a restart. He finished
14th, but maintained his hold on the top spot.
"That's the hardest-fought, 14th-place finish I've ever had at
Bristol,'' he said. "I think they really made a big mistake on the
call there for black-flagging me.''
Kevin Harvick ran into trouble during a long green-flag run,
losing feeling in his left arm and calling for his team to find a
They found Kyle Petty, who had been knocked out of the race
earlier, but Petty needed time to get into his firesuit. When Petty
was finally ready to get into the car, Harvick decided he'd stay in
and try to make it to the end of the race. He couldn't, and gave up
his seat on lap 359.
Harvick's car finished in 24th, but he maintained the eighth
spot in the standings.
Jarrett had trouble when, running in second place after a
restart, the lapped car of Robby Gordon hit him, causing a
It knocked Jarrett back in the field, and he was livid.
"You tell him I got him in my mind,'' he radioed.
So did NASCAR, which warned Robby Gordon that he would be
ordered off the track if he hit another competitor.
Jarrett is 45 points out of the top 10.
Mark Martin messed up on a pit stop, using rules for stopping
under caution to enter the service road instead of the green-flag
format. It cost him one lap, he finished 13th and now 35 points
Nine-time Bristol winner Rusty Wallace, who is expected to
announce Monday that the 2005 season will be his last, didn't get
the sendoff he wanted by finishing 26th.