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Earnhardt Wraps Up Stressful Week With Stellar Run

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DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ When Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived at Darlington Raceway, he didn't know if his team members resented his decision to leave DEI or if they'd back him completely.

Turns out they backed him completely.

``It was a good day for me,'' Earnhardt said.

Dale Jr. capped a tumultuous week with an eighth-place run in the Dodge Avenger 500, his fourth top-10 finish the past seven races.

Earnhardt had been the weekend's focus since he announced his departure from Dale Earnhardt Inc., after the season.

``My team surprised me on how behind me they were,'' Earnhardt said.

Right away, crew members took Junior aside and pledged their support.

``They're good guys. They know I'm a good guy. We get along really good and we all enjoy racing together,'' Earnhardt said. ``I was surprised by all that.''

Earnhardt also wasn't sure his fans would understand the move. After all, many of his backers also pulled for his late father, Dale Earnhardt, who founded the company Dale Jr. spurned.

``I hoped for the best and expected the worst,'' Earnhardt said of the fans. He certainly got their best at Darlington, where his dad was dominant with nine career wins.

Junior was cheered loudly during pre-race introductions. They screamed again when Earnhardt closed to third behind winner Jeff Gordon over the final laps.

``It's overwhelming. Those guys are so loyal,'' Earnhardt said. ``I hope to repay them for that loyalty.''

Earnhardt, with his fanbase, talent and charisma, is expected to command attention from NASCAR's top car owners during his free-agent period.

But that's for another time, he said.

With Darlington done, Earnhardt and his team can move forward as one.

``Everybody's just kind of glad to sort of know and not speculate anymore at least part of the decision we're going to make for our future,'' he said.

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MOTHER'S DAY BLUES: Sorry, mom.

Try as they might to keep Mother's Day without racing, Mother Nature guaranteed the Nextel Cup would run on mom's special day for the first time since 1986.

After the last time they tried, it's hard to believe they'd ever race on Mother's Day again. The Nextel All-Star Challenge was held at Atlanta Motor Speedway, filling what had been an off weekend 21 years ago.

But NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter says fewer than 10,000 people attended the event.

``They gave a red rose to every mother who attended,'' Hunter remembered. ``But it never worked.''

Hunter, a race promoter and former Darlington president before becoming NASCAR's chief spokesman, said organizers then couldn't capture the public's interest with the All-Star event. ``So as a result of that, we've never used Mother's Day,'' he said.

All weekend, NASCAR drivers have discussed plans to spend the day with their mothers. Some got to do that anyway. Darlington invited several of the racers' moms to the track for the unique call, ``Sons and gentlemen, start your engines.''

``Where else would I want to be but at the track. This is awesome,'' said Gaye Busch, who walked sons Kyle and Kurt across the stage Sunday during pre-race introductions.

She wasn't bothered the rain spoiled her day. Because her family typically is split up during the weekend, Gaye Busch doesn't usually celebrate until Monday or Tuesday. ``We're just glad to be here,'' she said.

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RAIN DELAY: Blame this one on the rain. NASCAR canceled a two-day test of the Car of Tomorrow at Dover International Speedway because of Saturday night's postponement at Darlington Raceway.

Race teams expected to have Sunday off and then head to the Monster Mile for test sessions Monday and Tuesday. Instead, NASCAR was stuck down South because of steady rain that delayed the Dodge Avenger 500.

NASCAR officials talked with race teams about rescheduling the test, but decided not to make it up this year.

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LUGNUTS: Tony Stewart's sixth place was his best Darlington finish since a fourth at the 2001 Southern 500. ... Dale Jarrett did not race at Darlington for the first time in 31 events dating to 1990. Jarrett, a three-time winner here, missed his second straight Nextel Cup race. ... Jeff Burton made his 450th Nextel Cup start at Darlington.
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