Earnhardt Jr. Backs Up Daytona Win

Monday, October 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Jr. charged by Bobby Labonte on the last lap, leaving him and a 16-car wreck behind while racing to victory Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

The win in the EA Sports 500 was sweet validation for Earnhardt, whose July victory at Daytona was questioned because it came in the first race there since his father's fatal crash in the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt Jr. so dominated the Pepsi 400, some drivers wondered 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.''

Labonte shot into the lead on lap 184 of the 188-lap event on Talladega's 2.66-mile oval and Earnhardt, who had been in or near the lead all day, slid back to fourth before mounting one last charge.

The 26-year-old third-generation driver took his Chevrolet into the outside groove and powered toward the front with Jeff Burton's Ford pushing him along.

Earnhardt dived into 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, Labonte drove high on the banked track to block Bobby Hamilton, who was racing him for position. They bumped, and Labonte's car slammed into the concrete wall near the exit of turn two and turned over.

Among those caught in the melee were Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Johnny Benson, Robert Pressley, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott, Ward Burton and Buckshot Jones. There were no injuries.

Tony 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 50 laps, then charged into contention and finished second.

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 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.

``It was kind of a nerve-racking day, watching the mirror and watching in front and watching the mirror,'' said Earnhardt, who has three victories this season and five in his two-year Winston Cup career.

Earnhardt, who 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.''

A year ago, the late Dale Earnhardt drove from 18th to first in the final five laps to earn the last of his 76 victories. His death came on the final lap of the season-opening race this year, one he had hoped would end with an unprecedented eighth series title.

The younger Earnhardt said his victory Sunday wasn't as exciting, but the last pass for the lead was a tough one.

``We got to beating and banging at the end,'' he 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.''

Labonte, who squeezed out of his battered car while it was still overturned on the back straightaway, said, ``He cleaned my left rear bumper off.''

It was a very popular victory among the 160,000 spectators at the sprawling racetrack, most of whom cheered loudly each of the 11 times Earnhardt took the lead. Most of them stayed to cheer Earnhardt as he drove to Victory Circle.

Despite Earnhardt's dominance, though, it appeared that Hamilton and Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt's Dale Earnhardt, Inc. teammate who won the Daytona 500 and finished second there in July, had the strongest cars Sunday.

Hamilton, a winner six months ago at Talladega, got hung up in traffic before the crash with Labonte. Waltrip, who led twice for 53 laps, went out of the race earlier with an overheating problem.

Until the big crash on the final lap, the race was fast and very clean despite the close racing.

The first yellow flag didn't wave until the 95th lap, when rookie Kevin Harvick bumped Todd Bodine from behind him into the wall on the backstretch. Casey Atwood, another rookie, bumped the slowing Elliott Sadler and both crashed.

The race was slowed only two more times, and finished at speed because the last yellow flag didn't wave until the cars were on the final lap.