Earnhardt ends slump with Bristol win

Posted: Sunday, August 29, 2004

BRISTOL, Tenn. Dale Earnhardt Jr. never denied his team was struggling. He never pretended he was a favorite for the Nextel Cup championship.

He instead accepted the No. 8 Chevrolet's slump, then set out to fix it.

Mission accomplished.

Earnhardt broke out of a six-week slump Saturday night with a convincing victory in the Sharpie 500, giving him a weekend sweep at Bristol Motor Speedway and momentum for the upcoming championship chase.

''This is huge for me, it's awesome for our team,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''The team really needed that. I watched my Daddy race here so many times ... wherever he's at, he's laughing at this butt-kicking.''

His team was in a freefall, and nothing the driver or crew tried could fix it.

This ought to do it.

''This team is tough as nails!'' he screamed in Victory Lane. ''Man, we needed this. This is one of the biggest wins of my career.

''You can't be No. 1 all the time. That's what makes it sweeter.''

Almost completely healed from burns he suffered last month in a non-NASCAR wreck, Earnhardt led 295 of the 500 laps for his first Nextel Cup win at Bristol. He'll stick the trophy right next to the one he earned Friday night for winning his first Busch series race on the 0.533-mile bullring.

He beat Ryan Newman to the finish line in a race that didn't shake up the championship standings as much as predicted.

Newman, fighting to become eligible for NASCAR's 10-race championship chase, moved into contention by jumping three spots to the cutoff position of 10th. It came at the expense of rookie Kasey Kahne, who finished 21st and fell to 11th in standings.

It was the only major change in the standings as drivers scramble to make it into the top 10 with just two races to go before the playoffs begin.

Kahne is 26 points out of the top 10 and Jeremy Mayfield, his teammate, is right behind in 12th place in the standings. But time is running out on the Evernham Motorsports pair, and everyone else behind them, too.

The name of the game now is putting together solid runs and getting teams in sync right before the chase begins. Jimmie Johnson did it by ending his streak of three straight DNF's with a third-place finish.

But it was Junior who made the loudest statement by pulling off a win when almost everyone had written the team off.

It didn't help that his legs were so badly burned in a practice session for a sports car race in California that Earnhardt twice had to give way to a relief driver, too hurt and too frustrated to stay in his car.

Things started to get better two weeks ago with a fifth-place finish on the demanding road course at Watkins Glen.

Now comes this win, which had Earnhardt almost giddy in Victory Lane.

The win came on the fifth anniversary of the late Dale Earnhardt's final Bristol victory. He earned it by knocking Terry Labonte out of the lead on the final lap of the race, a move that earned the popular driver a chorus of boos in Victory Lane.

The crowd's reaction was much different for this Earnhardt, who delighted them with a series of burnouts and was treated to deafening cheers when he got out of his car.

''I've come to a lot races here when my dad drove,'' Junior said. ''He made this place magical to an Earnhardt fan, me being one of them.

''I might not have done like he did it just now, but it was pretty close.''

Jeff Burton finished fourth in his new Richard Childress-owned ride. Elliott Sadler was fifth, followed by Sterling Marlin and Jamie McMurray.

Kurt Busch, who won the past three Bristol races, finished eighth one lap down. Matt Kenseth was ninth and Dale Jarrett 10th.

There was some drama for a few of the championship contenders.

Pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, the points leader who was seeking his series-best sixth win of the season, was black-flagged late in the race for lining up in the wrong place on a restart. He finished 14th, but maintained his hold on the top spot.

''That's the hardest-fought, 14th-place finish I've ever had at Bristol,'' he said. ''I think they really made a big mistake on the call there for black-flagging me.''

Kevin Harvick ran into trouble during a long green-flag run, losing feeling in his left arm and calling for his team to find a backup driver.

They found Kyle Petty, who had been knocked out of the race earlier, but Petty needed time to get into his firesuit. When Petty was finally ready to get into the car, Harvick decided he'd stay in and try to make it to the end of the race. He couldn't, and gave up his seat on lap 359.

Harvick's car finished in 24th, but he maintained the eighth spot in the standings.

Jarrett had trouble when, running in second place after a restart, the lapped car of Robby Gordon hit him, causing a multi-car accident.

It knocked Jarrett back in the field, and he was livid.

''You tell him I got him in my mind,'' he radioed.

So did NASCAR, which warned Robby Gordon that he would be ordered off the track if he hit another competitor.

Jarrett is 45 points out of the top 10.

Mark Martin messed up on a pit stop, using rules for stopping under caution to enter the service road instead of the green-flag format. It cost him one lap, he finished 13th and now 35 points out.

Nine-time Bristol winner Rusty Wallace, who is expected to announce Monday that the 2005 season will be his last, didn't get the sendoff he wanted by finishing 26th.

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