Waltrip takes tough Talladega

Posted: Monday, September 29, 2003

TALLADEGA, Ala. Sweeping around the final turn, his No. 8 car all banged up after a harrowing day, Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw clear track in front of him and a chance at his fifth straight Talladega victory.

Just like that, the opening disappeared.

Michael Waltrip dove off the banking to block his teammate and win the EA Sports 500 on Sunday, denying Earnhardt another trip to victory lane at the track he has dominated the past two years.

''To win this race, it wasn't going to take an action from me. It was going to take a reaction,'' Waltrip said, savoring his fourth career victory. ''I wasn't scared. I wasn't intimidated. I wasn't worried.''

After holding off Junior at the finish line, Waltrip turned some doughnuts in the grass in front of the main grandstand a rather routine way of celebrating. Then he added his own touch, popping out through the roof of his car with arms raised while the crowd of more than 100,000 roared.

Waltrip was the only driver to install a new escape hatch that was approved by NASCAR beginning with this race. But he wasn't thinking about needing it in a crash or fire.

''When we were doing the testing, I told 'em that I hoped we could win so I could come out through the roof hatch,'' Waltrip said. ''I thought that was cool. Hey, I'm a redneck. You've got to get out through your sun roof every now and then.''

It was a typically thrilling Talladega race, often resembling a night at the short track as the cars banged and bumped even while circling the track at speeds approaching 200 mph.

''I don't know if I could take too many more of these,'' said Earnhardt, the first driver to win four straight Winston Cup races at the 2.66-mile oval. ''It was too crazy for me, and I'm about the craziest one out here.''

It came down to a four-lap sprint to the finish after a spectacular crash sent pole-sitter Elliott Sadler's car flipping down the backstretch.

Coming off the fourth turn for the final time, Waltrip went high to block Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt got a peek to the inside, but Waltrip swept to the bottom of the track to block his DEI teammate and cruised across the line ahead by about a car length, his second victory of the year.

''I firmly believe if I had stayed on the bottom of the track and tried to ride to the checkered flag, Gordon would have passed me,'' Waltrip said. ''I felt like I had to drive to the top of the track to stop Gordon's momentum and cut back to the bottom of the track to keep Junior behind me.''

Gordon wound up slipping to fifth after Waltrip broke his momentum. Tony Stewart, who skipped practice Saturday because of a severe headache, wound up third, while Ryan Newman took fourth.

Waltrip won by 0.095 seconds, giving Dale Earnhardt Inc. nine victories in the last 12 restrictor-plate races at Talladega and Daytona.

The team's founder, who was killed in a 2001 crash at Daytona as Waltrip won for the first time, would have been proud.

''Dale left his fingerprints all over DEI when he left us,'' Waltrip said. ''He's such a presence in our shop and such a reason for our success.''

NASCAR tinkered with the restrictor-plate rules for this race, giving the cars a little more horsepower but raising the spoilers to keep speeds from getting too high.

The result was a downright scary race, the cars bunched tightly as they jostled for position. There were 41 lead changes among 17 drivers in the 188-lap event, which kept the fans on their feet most of the day.

Waltrip's Chevrolet won with an average speed of 156.045 mph.

''It was typical Talladega,'' Stewart said. ''Everybody's going left, everybody's going right and no one knows where they're going to finish. I'm just glad to be walking out of here.''

Points leader Matt Kenseth wasn't so fortunate. He failed to finish a race for the first time this year, blowing an engine while contending for the lead on lap 158.

Kenseth finished a season-worst 33rd but still has a comfortable lead in the standings. With seven races left, he's up by 354 points on Kevin Harvick and 384 points on Earnhardt, who swapped places with Johnson in the standings.

Kenseth had not finished lower than 22nd all season. He placed among the top 10 in 22 of 28 races, failing to finish only two laps until his engine blew up.

''This restrictor plate stuff has always been out weakness,'' Kenseth said.

''We just need to go race hard the rest of the races and we should be OK, but we can't have more stuff break.''

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