Earnhardt wins crash-marred Talladega race

Sunday, April 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Jr. was relaxed and confident as he raced toward a dominating victory Sunday in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

It was when NASCAR waved the red flag, pausing the action six laps from the end, that the fretting began.

``Sitting on the back straightaway, I was real nervous because I've led a lot of races like that and not won,'' Earnhardt said. ``I knew it wasn't over. It gets really crazy out there at the end because everybody does anything and everything to win.''

No problem.

Earnhardt, who managed to avoid a 24-car wreck earlier in the race, easily kept his lead on the restart and held off teammate Michael Waltrip over the last five laps for his second straight victory on the 2.66-mile oval.

Earnhardt, like his late father, has become a master of the superspeedways, racing off to his third victory in the last four restrictor-plate races and leading 133 of 188 laps Sunday.

Still, there is always the specter of a multicar crash in the races on NASCAR's big tracks.

``I knew I didn't want to be any farther back than fifth because I knew it was going to happen,'' Little E said, referring to crash that came on lap 164.

``With the rules package, we're gouging and getting into the sides of each other just because it's so hard to pass, and I didn't want any part of it.''

Mark Martin, involved in the big wreck, brought out the third and final caution flag of the day when his battered car stalled in the grass on the back straightaway eight laps from the finish.

With oil dumped on parts of the track, NASCAR _ just as it did in the season-opening Daytona 500 _ brought out the red flag and stopped the cars on the backstretch on lap 183 to give the safety crews time to clean the track and allow the race to finish under green.

The cars were restarted after a delay of 15 minutes, 29 seconds and, after the green waved with four laps to go, the 27-year-old Earnhardt, whose father won 10 times on this track, fought off the challenge from his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate.

``Junior wound up being a little stronger than me all day,'' Waltrip said. ``I was having fun running second and I just wanted to see how long I could protect him.''

It was obvious Waltrip was working hard to keep the rest of the challengers off the leader's rear bumper.

``I was proud of him for blocking for me when he needed to, and I did it for him when I could,'' noted Waltrip, who led twice for 14 laps.

Earnhardt said it was a comfort to have Waltrip behind him through much of the race.

``To have Michael behind me at these plate races is everything,'' he said. ``Me and him helped each other win last year at Daytona.''

Waltrip beat Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, the race in which Junior's father was killed, and Little E came back to beat Waltrip in an emotional July race in Daytona.

On Sunday, the two DEI Chevrolets crossed the finish line with the red No. 8 out front by just 0.060 seconds _ about one car-length. Earnhardt, who has six career victories, averaged 159.022 mph.

Kurt Busch, one of four Roush Racing drivers in the 43-car field, wound up third and was disappointed he couldn't win for team owner Jack Roush, in serious condition in a Birmingham hospital after crashing a small plane in south Alabama on Friday.

``We've got Jack in the back of our minds and I wanted to go out and win a race for him,'' said Busch, a Ford driver. ``These cars are so equal, I believe the cars were balanced with the Chevys, the Pontiacs and the Dodges, but there's no stopping those DEI cars. They were strong.''

Jeff Gordon, the defending series champion, wound up fourth, followed by current leader Sterling Marlin, Dale Jarrett and rookie pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson.

Marlin leads Matt Kenseth, who finished 30th in another Roush car, by 109 points.

Kenny Wallace, driving a car owned by Waltrip, finished fifth but was penalized to 21st for passing Marlin under the yellow line that runs along the bottom of the banked track.

It was typical of races at Talladega and Daytona, the tracks where NASCAR requires the horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates to keep the cars under 200 mph.

Most of the field was bunched in tight packs throughout, racing two-, three- and sometimes four-wide on the high-banked track.

There was plenty of bumping and scraping going on in the drafts, but nobody got in trouble for the first 163 laps, with the only caution waving on lap 115 because of debris on the racing surface.

With tension building and the end of the race in sight, Mike Wallace, in the middle of the fast-moving traffic jam, rammed Tony Stewart into the outside wall as the pack raced off turn two.

That set off the big melee that snared, among others, Martin, Rusty Wallace, Martinsville winner Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick and Jeremy Mayfield, all of whom were running with the leaders.

It was a lot like Saturday's 29-car wreck in the Busch Series race except that none of the cars involved got off the ground like those of Johnny Sauter and Mike McLaughin the previous day.

There was only one minor injury on Saturday and, on Sunday, Mike Wallace was treated for minor burns on his lower back and Johnny Benson was treated for smoke inhalation after his battered car burst into flames on pit road.

``It's about the hardest hit I've ever taken so I commend NASCAR again on the safety of these race cars, what they make these teams go through,'' said Elliott Sadler, who rammed in the inside wall during the big crash.