Gordon sneaks past Earnhardt

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2004

TALLADEGA, Ala. Jeff Gordon seized the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. with six laps remaining and barely beat him in a controversial finish Sunday, ending DEI's winning streak at Talladega Superspeedway.

With Earnhardt making a strong move to pass for the lead coming off turn four on lap 184 of the 188-lap Aaron's 499, rookie Brian Vickers and Casey Mears collided, sending Vickers sliding and bringing out the 11th caution flag of the race.

Under NASCAR's rule change from last fall, freezing the field when the yellow comes out rather than letting the competitors race to the flagstand, Gordon got his first Nextel Cup victory of the season, third on Talladega's 2.66-mile oval and the 65th of his NASCAR career.

At first, Earnhardt was posted in front, but replays appeared to show Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet was about three-quarters of a car length ahead of Earnhardt's No. 8 Monte Carlo when the caution waved. The partisan crowd booed lustily and threw beer cans and food onto the track as Gordon was put back on top and drove slowly to the finish behind the pace truck and in front of Earnhardt.

''Beating the DEI cars is difficult to do,'' Gordon said, referring to both Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip who, between them, had won five straight Cup races at Talladega, including four by Junior.

''I don't know if I was ahead of him there at the end,'' Gordon said. ''I know I was ahead of him coming out of (turn) three, but we'll let NASCAR make that decision.''

Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, led four times for a total of 15 laps.

Earnhardt, who led 11 times for a race-high 57 laps, politely disagreed with NASCAR's decision.

''There at the end, we rolled out to the outside and I got a shove from 48 coming down the back straightaway,'' Earnhardt said, referring to fourth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

''I thought I was out ahead of Jeff when the caution came out, but that's not the way NASCAR saw it and I still haven't seen NASCAR's evidence to show me I was not ahead of him when the caution came out. I was a car-length ahead of him when I went past a caution light which was not on.

''We'll just see what they got to show us and we'll go with that. We aren't going to argue and stomp our feet about it.''

The race was typical of the recent Cup events at both Talladega and Daytona, the tracks where NASCAR requires horsepower-dampening carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars.

Cars ran in huge packs, often three- and four-wide throughout and there was passing from front to back on nearly ever lap. The lead changed hands 54 times.

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