Jr. pops win at Talledega

Earnhardt finishes first in the EA Sports 500

Posted: Monday, October 22, 2001

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- For Dale Earnhardt Jr., this one was for the naysayers.

Earnhardt charged by Bobby Labonte on the last lap, leaving him and a 16-car wreck behind while racing to victory Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

The win in the EA Sports 500 was sweet validation for Earnhardt, whose July victory at Daytona was questioned because it came in the first race there since his father's fatal crash in the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt Jr. so dominated the Pepsi 400, some drivers wondered whether NASCAR allowed him to use a more powerful engine. This time, on the only other track where engine rules restrict the speed of the cars, the victory didn't come easily.

''It was a rough race,'' Earnhardt said, then addressed the Daytona fix issue. ''This put all those people in the beds they made. It feels good.''

Labonte shot into the lead on the 184th of 188 laps. Earnhardt in or near the lead all day, slid to fourth before mounting one last charge.

The 26-year-old driver took his Chevrolet to the outside groove and powered toward the front with Jeff Burton's Ford pushing him along.

Earnhardt dived into second place on lap 186 and stayed there until he shouldered his way under Labonte's Pontiac in turn one on the final lap.

As Earnhardt pulled away, chased by Tony Stewart, Labonte drove high on the track to block Bobby Hamilton. They bumped, and Labonte's car slammed into the concrete wall and turned over.

''I tried to make a move on Bobby and he went high to block me and either I got under him or he got into me,'' Hamilton said. ''It scared the hell out of me because I looked back in the mirror and he was up in the air.''

Among those caught in the melee were Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Johnny Benson, Robert Pressley, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott, Ward Burton and Buckshot Jones. There were no injuries.

Stewart, the center of attention this week because of his reluctance to wear a head and neck restraint, drove a strategic race. He was far back in the field of 43 until the last 50 laps, then charged into contention and finished second.

He actually was able to edge a half-car-length past Earnhardt in turn three on the final lap before the winner bumped him off stride.

''We got to beating and banging at the end,'' Earnhardt said. ''I had to run into the side of the 18 (Labonte) and had to run into the side of the 20 car (Stewart), but they would have done the same thing, I feel like.''

Labonte wasn't happy with Earnhardt.

''He cleaned my left rear bumper off,'' Labonte said.

Stewart, the last holdout against wearing a HANS or Hutchens device to protect against head injuries, was forced to don one after NASCAR made it mandatory earlier in the week.

Stewart wore a Hutchens for the first time.

After seeing teammate Labonte crash, Stewart, who had refused to talk to the media all weekend, said, ''I'm just glad to be alive after this one's over.''

He refused further comment. Team owner Joe Gibbs understood that.

''He's obviously gotten in trouble when he did talk when he was upset and today he was scared because he saw Bobby on the backstretch upside down,'' Gibbs said.

Burton wound up third, followed by Matt Kenseth, Hamilton, Kenny Wallace and Jeff Gordon, who increased his series lead over Rudd to 395 points with five races remaining.

It was a typical Talladega race, with most of the cars tightly bunched, often running four wide. There were 32 lead changes among 13 drivers, with three caution flags for 16 laps.

''It was kind of a nerve-racking day, watching the mirror and watching in front and watching the mirror,'' said Earnhardt, who has three victories this season and five in his two-year Winston Cup career.

Earnhardt, who averaged 164.185 mph, led a race-high 67 laps and won a $1 million bonus from the series sponsor.

Unlike Daytona in July, where he obviously had the most powerful car, he needed some help in this one.

''I guess I owe about half of this million dollars to Jeff Burton,'' Earnhardt said. ''He helped me all day.''

Still, he added, ''About halfway through the race I wanted to talk to the guys and tell them this car was just awesome.''

He did that in the July race and some used that as evidence that he had an advantage. This time, he simply let the results tell the story.

A year ago, the late Dale Earnhardt got the last of his 76 victories. His death came on the final lap of the season-opening race this year, one he had hoped would end with an unprecedented eighth series title.

''I wanted to win this one real bad because it was the same race my dad won last year,'' Earnhardt said.

His victory was very popular among the 160,000 spectators at the sprawling racetrack, most of whom cheered loudly each of the 11 times Earnhardt took the lead. Afterward the crowd chanted ''Earnhardt, Earnhardt, Earnhardt.''

Despite his dominance, though, it appeared that Hamilton and Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt's Dale Earnhardt, Inc. teammate who won the Daytona 500 and finished second there in July, had the strongest cars Sunday.

Hamilton, a winner six months ago at Talladega, got hung up in traffic before the crash with Labonte. Waltrip, who led twice for 53 laps, went out of the race earlier with an overheating problem.

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