Jr. wins record fourth straight at Taladega

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2003

TALLADEGA, Ala. About the only thing that went right for Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday was winning the Aaron's 499.

Crew chief Tony Eury Sr. had to beat on the doors of a couple of his crewmen who overslept their 5 a.m. wake-up call after forgetting to reset their clocks.

When the crew of the No. 8 Chevrolet warmed up the engine after arriving at Talladega Superspeedway, the oil cooler filled up with water, requiring an engine change and forcing Earnhardt to start from the rear of the 43-car field.

Four laps into the 188-lap event, Earnhardt drove through the infield grass to avoid a wild 27-car crash. The bumpy ride tore up his front air dam, messing up the car's aerodynamics and forcing a series of pit stops for repairs.

Earnhardt charged back to become the first driver to win four straight Winston Cup events on the 2.66-mile Talladega oval, but afterward he spent more time explaining a disputed pass than talking about his eighth career victory.

Today was real tough,'' Earnhardt said, shaking his head and grinning. I didn't guess we'd be competitive the rest of the day after the accident. We were just hanging on in the middle of the race. I didn't feel like I had a very competitive car. But at the end of the day, we were able to make the moves we needed to make.''

Earnhardt didn't lead for the first time until lap 107 and wound up in front nine times for 34 laps in a race in which there was a total of 43 lead changes among 16 drivers. He fended off challenges at the end from Jimmie Johnson, Ward Burton and Matt Kenseth.

He fought his way into the lead twice in the last four laps, once with a pass below the yellow line on the track apron. The move had rival teams lined up at the NASCAR hauler after the race to complain.

Driving below the yellow line to improve position is prohibited at Talladega, and NASCAR warned the drivers before Sunday's race that officials would be watching closely for such moves.

He was clearly below the yellow line,'' said Johnson, who was behind Earnhardt and Kenseth at the time. Anybody else who dances down there gets in trouble. From my vantage point, I didn't think it was a legal pass.''

But, after reviewing videotape of the pass, NASCAR ruled it a legal move.

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said: There is not a shadow of a doubt he was below the yellow line. However, in our judgment, he had already improved his position and was past (Kenseth) when he went down there.''

The 28-year-old son of the late Dale Earnhardt, the career leader at Talladega with 10 Winston Cup victories, came up with his first win of the season and moved to second in the standings, 129 points behind Kenseth.

Earnhardt's victory Sunday broke the record of three in a row here, held by Buddy Baker, who won twice in 1975 and once in 1976.

There ain't too many (drivers) ever won four races here, period,'' Earnhardt said. I'm stepping into some awful big shoes.''

NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates at Talladega and Daytona, its two longest and fastest ovals. The plates sap horsepower and produce huge drafts up to four cars wide in which a multi-car wreck is virtually inevitable.

The crowd of more than 160,000 didn't have long to wait for The Big One'' on Sunday. A deflated tire sent Ryan Newman's car into the fourth-turn wall on the fourth lap around the high-banked oval and started the crash in the second turn.

There were no injuries, but the crash took out or damaged the cars of a number of possible contenders, including Earnhardt.

At one point in the early going, Earnhardt had lost the lead pack and was facing the possibility of being lapped until debris on the track brought out another of the six cautions and allowed him to pit for more adjustments.

Late in the race, Earnhardt got caught in traffic and slid out of the top five. But he came back, taking the lead on lap 185 with the controversial pass on Kenseth and Johnson that took him below the yellow line.

They were up there racing against the wall,'' Earnhardt explained. I was watching Matt to see if he noticed me and (if he) was coming down to block me. ... I was watching him and trying not to run into him if he came down and crossed the nose of my car, so it was more not to cause a wreck than anything.

But I didn't necessarily intentionally end up there. Again, I don't think it was an advantage on getting by Matt.''

I couldn't see it at all,'' Kenseth said. I have no idea.''

Elliott Sadler, who was right behind Earnhardt, said, I was the one pushing (Earnhardt), and they ran him down. He had to do that or cause a big wreck, so it was a smart move. He's just like his dad driving that car.

He kept giving me the 'come on, push' sign and I pushed him all I could. We almost had a 1-2 finish, but we'll take third right now.''

Kenseth took the lead on lap 186, but Earnhardt pushed back in front on lap 187 and kept the lead, beating Kevin Harvick's Chevy to the finish line by 0.125 seconds about 1 1/2 car-lengths.

Sadler was third, followed by Ricky Craven, Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Burton and Jeff Gordon. Kenseth was kicked back to ninth on the final lap, and Johnson, who led a race-high 65 laps, wound up 15th after spinning into the infield grass coming off the fourth turn on lap 187.

Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt's DEI teammate and the winner of the season-opening Daytona 500, ran among the leaders until he crashed on lap 83. Waltrip wound up 24th.

Subscribe to Peninsula Clarion

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us