Three in row plus a bonus for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega; Stewart takes NASCAR points lead.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 7, 2002
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Back when the late Dale Earnhardt was dominating restrictor-plate races, they had a nickname for Talladega Superspeedway -- Dale-adega.
It still applies.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won Sunday's EA Sports 500, his seventh career victory and record-tying third straight at the 2.66-mile track. In what has become a family tradition, he also picked up a $1-million bonus.
"I'm very happy that I'm able to be competitive here," said Earnhardt, who beat Tony Stewart by 0.118 seconds. "My dad won a lot of races here and looked forward to running here. It's a good feeling to know what he felt."
Ricky Rudd, Kurt Busch and Jeff Green completed the top five in a rare caution-free race.
Earnhardt, who died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, won a record 10 times at Talladega, including his final victory in October 2000. Junior's three wins make him the track's active leader. Buddy Baker is the only other driver to win three straight at Talladega, from 1975-76.
For the first time in his four-year career, Stewart assumed the lead in the Winston Cup standings. Mark Martin trails by 71 and rookie Jimmie Johnson by 82 with six races left.
"Everybody in this garage area is searching for a Winston Cup championship," said Stewart, who never considered passing Earnhardt near the end. "That's what we're all striving for. Being the favorite doesn't mean a darn thing to me. Six races is still a lot of racing."
Talladega scrambled the tightest points race in NASCAR's modern era, but not in the predictable manner. The big wreck drivers dread at Talladega and Daytona, where restrictor plates limit horsepower to keep speeds under 200 mph, never happened.
The bizarre did.
Because qualifying was rained out, the starting lineup was set according to points, with leader Johnson on the pole and Martin beside him in the front row. During the pace laps, Martin was weaving to warm up his tires when the steering on his No. 6 Ford locked, causing him to run into Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.
Martin veered through the frontstretch grass before it returned, but NASCAR required him to pit as the field took the green flag to be sure the problem was fixed. On the first lap, Johnson pitted to fix damage to his right front fender.
Soon, each was one lap down.
"That's the kind of blow that really takes you out of these things," said Martin, who also had a flat tire late in the race to finish 30th, two laps down. Johnson's engine quit 15 laps from the finish, putting him 37th.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, whose No. 24 Chevrolet clearly was strong enough to challenge the Dale Earnhardt Inc. tandem of Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip, retired on Lap 125 of 188 with a blown engine. The 42nd-place finish dropped him from fourth to seventh in the standings.
"That's been our misfortune all year long," said Gordon, who won Sept. 29. "We can't seem to get back-to-back great finishes and wins and kind of carry the momentum. This is a big bummer."
NASCAR's efforts to avoid the multi-car pileup that usually occurs in restrictor-plate races turned one of the sport's most exciting events into a fuel-mileage race.
With fuel cells reduced from 22 to 12.5 gallons, most teams made twice the normal number of pit stops for a 500-mile race. While most drivers took a splash of gasoline during the final 20 laps, Earnhardt and seven others drove the final 38 without stopping.
Earnhardt said his No. 8 Chevrolet began to sputter as he pulled into Victory Lane.
"You never expect the race to go green flag," he said. "But you definitely don't leave any stones unturned. You saw a lot of guys having to stop an extra time."
The victory was the sixth in eight plate races for DEI: two by Waltrip and four by Earnhardt. The son takes great pride in carrying on his father's winning tradition at two of NASCAR's premier venues. For three straight years, an Earnhardt has won $1-million at Talladega, Senior in 2000 and Junior the past two.
"I enjoy running these tracks because I have a good enough car to do what I want it to do," said Earnhardt, who led the most laps, 56, including the final 39. "These are big races too. Talladega and Daytona are two of the biggest tracks in terms of spectacle. To win at these tracks is a good confidence boost.
"We're good at it, and hopefully we'll be good at it for a long time."